AUGUSTA, Maine — The next skirmish between Ron Paul supporters and establishment party leaders for control of the Maine Republican Party takes place Saturday morning in Waterville.
The Maine Republican Party’s State Committee will hold a closed meeting to consider five resolutions presented by members, according to Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP. Saturday’s meeting offers the first opportunity for disgruntled supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul to meet state party leaders since the Republican National Committee replaced 10 of Maine’s national convention delegates pledged to Paul.
Webster said the petition relates to a challenge to 20 Paul delegates elected at the state party convention in May. Jan Martens Staples and Peter Cianchette, longtime Maine Republican Party insiders and supporters of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, filed the challenge prior to the convention. Scheduling conflicts and concerns about the inability to gather a quorum made it impossible to hold the meeting prior to the national convention, Webster said, but party rules mandate that a meeting to consider resolutions proposed by petitioners take place.
“These are just a series of resolutions which are unnecessary and, even if introduced, would have served no purpose,” Webster said Friday while waiting to board a plane for the return trip from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
A Republican National Committee decision to replace 10 of the delegates, based on problems with how they were chosen at the state convention, makes the resolutions “no longer pertinent,” according to Webster.
While the resolutions to be considered Saturday might be moot, an underlying rift between Paul supporters and party leaders is not. As campaign season enters the critical post-Labor Day phase, conflict within the Republican Party threatens lingering distractions and could harm the GOP’s chances in Maine’s 2nd District, where the party hopes to gain a seat in the U.S. House and an Electoral College vote for Romney.
With all indications that the presidential race will remain extremely close nationally, which makes voter turnout especially important in electoral battlegrounds like the 2nd District, party leaders must create “the largest possible coalition to win,” according to Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.
A choice by disaffected Ron Paul supporters to sit out this year’s election in Maine could have national implications, Schmidt said. Because Question 1, a referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage, will likely motivate voters who support Democrats to the polls, Schmidt said the impact of Paul voters opting out on Election Day would be magnified.
With the stakes so high, Webster and Republican candidates in Maine must convince disgruntled conservatives “to rally around the national party without sounding like the national party,” Schmidt said. If they can’t, the party also runs the risk of fumbling opportunities to attract other “non-Paul voters” who could be turned off by the perception of a Republican establishment with no interest in the grassroots.
“If I were Charlie Webster, what would keep me up at night would be how to convince Paul supporters to stay with the party when they feel that the party does not support them,” Schmidt said. “After what happened in Tampa, I think it would be considerably more difficult to sell.”
Webster disagrees. Because so many of Paul’s supporters latched onto the Republican party this year, their departure would not represent the loss of a core constituency that helped the party gain control of the Legislature and Blaine House in 2010, he said.
He compared this year’s influx of Paul activists to past movements that supported Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. “Just like when we had the Pat Robertson people and Buchanan people, some people who support Ron Paul will stick with the party and be part of our process,” Webster said.
Jonathan Pfaff, a Cumberland County representative to the state committee who helped draft the resolutions at the center of Saturday’s meeting, plans to stick with the Republican party, despite his strong disagreement with national GOP leaders over whether the state convention was conducted fairly.
“What I want people to know is that Republicans will hold ourselves accountable too,” Pfaff said in explaining his rationale for pushing for a meeting on the resolutions to be considered Saturday. “What Jan Staples did is like saying ‘this party is just for some of us.’ That’s not right. It’s an open party, open to everyone, not just certain individuals.”
Pfaff, a Paul supporter, will concentrate on helping Republicans win legislative seats. “I am 100 percent Republican party,” he said Friday.
Vic Berardelli, a member of the Republican State Committee from Penobscot County and northeast region director of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which advocates for many of Paul’s core principles, worries that Pfaff might be an exception in Maine’s Ron Paul camp. He fears that the failure of Maine Republican leaders, other than Gov. Paul LePage, to advocate more strongly for the Paul delegates will hurt the party in November and the long run.
“What the party powers have done is antagonize a lot of new blood,” Berardelli told the Bangor Daily News by phone Friday. “A lot of them registered unenrolled, but joined the Republican party because of Ron Paul.”
Berardelli compares this year’s new breed of Paul backers with Republicans who, like himself, joined the party because Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater sparked their conservative idealism during the early 1960s. Anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy created a similar anti-establishment enthusiasm for Democrats during the late 1960s, he said.
“Many of them matured and became valuable assets to the party,” Berardelli said of Goldwater and McCarthy activists originally perceived to be fringe members of their parties. If Maine Republican Party leaders use the Republican National Committee’s report that flaws in the May state convention negated election of some delegates pledged to Paul as grounds for a hard line against new party members who align with the tea party or libertarianism, it will cause them to “feel disrespected and leave politics,” he said.
Frustrated by events in Tampa, some disenfranchised Ron Paul backers have suggested voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. In Maine, one version of that discussion unfolded on “Please everyone, be libertarian with me for just one election,” a comment thread launched Aug. 26 on the conservative website As Maine Goes, which stretched for five pages as of Friday.
Webster quickly dismissed the notion that an exodus of Paul supporters to Johnson would hurt the Republican party.
“I’m a Rick Santorum kind of guy. My guy lost. I didn’t protest,” Webster said. “Any Republican who doesn’t support Mitt Romney now isn’t a Republican and probably shouldn’t be.”