AUGUSTA, Maine — For Maine Republicans, the crash this year came as hard and swiftly as the surge of 2010.
Two years ago, Maine voters elected Paul LePage to serve as the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years and swept GOP lawmakers into majorities in both chambers of the Maine Legislature. The party had not held such consolidated power in the State House since 1963-64.
That GOP power base crumbled on Nov. 6, as voters elected Democratic majorities in both the Maine Senate and House of Representatives. Republicans also lost their 18-year hold on the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, after independent Angus King won a six-person contest to succeed retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe.
The reversal of 2010’s electoral gains prompted soul searching among Republicans and calls to reorganize the party’s state operations.
“It is in our darkest hour that people will come forward and ask to be candidates in the Grand Old Party,” Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Wednesday during the GOP House caucus that elected him its leader for the 126th Legislature. “We must be ready to embrace more women, and we must be ready to embrace more young people, and we must be ready to embrace more leadership, not less.”
In addition to choosing leadership, the Maine Republican Party will wrestle with questions about how to balance its traditionally moderate base with emergent conservative tea party principles and libertarianism espoused by supporters of Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. That ideological divide surfaced at the state Republican convention in May and again during a dispute about seating Ron Paul delegates at the National Republican Party Convention in late August.
Similar disputes continue to simmer at the local and county levels, exemplified by Lewiston Republican Party Chairman Tim Lajoie’s announcement that he plans to resign because his libertarian principles conflict with those of the state and local parties, according to Paul adherent Chris Dixon, whose Undercover Porcupine blog appears on the BDN website.
The 2014 election epitomizes the challenge that the party’s leaders face, as they will likely be working to re-elect moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and LePage, whose forceful conservatism attracts tea party support.
“We need to accept people with new energy and new ideas into the party,” said Dan Demeritt, LePage’s former communications director, who now works as a Maine political consultant. “People with a libertarian bent feel like they’re not welcome, and we can’t have that. We have to find room for those people.”
Discussion on the conservative website As Maine Goes about who should replace outgoing Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster when the committee votes for new leaders on Dec. 1 also reflects a diversity of opinions about what direction the GOP should pursue.
Among the names floated as possible party leaders are State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, termed-out state Rep. Richard Cebra of Naples, recently defeated state Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick, Cumberland County Chairwoman Jan Love and Ruth Summers, the wife of Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who lost her Maine Senate District 6 campaign this year.
Tension between longtime party supporters, self-proclaimed “liberty” advocates and those who would “eliminate anyone who has worked in an office in D.C. not elected to that job” marks the online dialogue.
“We need a healer to bring everybody together,” said Vic Berardelli, vice chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Maine and an at-large member of the Maine Republican Party from Penobscot County. “We can’t have an ideological purist. We need someone who can bring in all factions.”
Berardelli supports Cebra, who emailed Republican state committee members to signal his interest in the leadership position. Berardelli said Wednesday that he’s also received phone calls from people who support O’Connor.
“The Maine Republican Party needs more coordination, and it needs to stop the ‘Republican circle shoot,’” Demeritt said of internal bickering that stymied momentum from the 2010 election and sent a mixed message to the public about the party’s leadership. “We saw it with the convention and the people’s veto of same-day voter registration.”
Jonathan Pfaff, a member of the state committee from Portland who helped write a resolution that affirmed the validity of the May state convention’s selection of Ron Paul presidential delegates, said the party will return to the grassroots. “We must empower every individual to feel compelled, needed and appreciated rather than the old tired approach of big donors and a few participants at the top,” he said.
“What the party needs more than anything is simple competence,” said Matthew Gagnon, a Republican political strategist whose Pine Tree Politics blog appears on the BDN website. “It needs to adapt to the changing way political campaigns are run and organized. It needs somebody who understands the motivations of voters who do not think like Republicans think and how to reach them. … Many of the wounds that have emerged within the party over the last few years will naturally heal with an adult in charge.”
This year’s election results don’t offer a clear indication of what ideological direction the Maine GOP should pursue.
With logistical and financial support from national Republican groups in his campaign to succeed Snowe, Charlie Summers tacked right from the more moderate positions he took during previous elections. Yet he still finished well behind King. Moderate Kevin Raye and more conservative Jon Courtney lost handily in their challenges to incumbent Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, respectively, in this year’s U.S. House contests.
Although Democrats scored major gains in this year’s legislative races, those wins did not come in any easily discernible ideological pattern. Some of the more conservative Republicans who won in 2010, including O’Connor, lost this year. However, other tea party favorites, such as Heather Sirocki of Scarborough, won re-election, while House seats held by termed-out moderate Republicans like Stacey Fitts and Patrick Flood, who did win a tight race to move to the Senate, went Democratic.
Basing political strategies on ideology is the wrong approach, according to Gagnon. “Politics is not about ideology,” he said. “Everyone thinks it is, and it does play a small part. But politics is actually about identity. … Sen. Snowe, for instance, didn’t win such massive majorities because she was a centrist. She won them because Maine people felt she acted in a stately manner, deliberate, pragmatic, independent, strong, intelligent. Most voters probably couldn’t even tell you what she believed on a whole host of major issues — they simply identified with her.”
LePage’s high-profile identity is not in doubt. “The GOP will have a governor who still has an aggressive agenda and who will push it,” Demeritt said after the Nov. 6 election gave Democrats control of the Legislature. “Paul LePage was not elected to mind the store. He’s a passionate man.”
While Democrats and progressives argue that campaigning against LePage’s agenda helped them win legislative majorities this year, Gagnon believes the governor“will be doing a great deal more to help his party than hurt it next cycle.” He notes that LePage’s approval rating has hovered near 40 percent, which is considerably higher than his predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
If, as has been the case since the 1970s, the 2014 gubernatorial race draws three or more candidates, LePage’s solid support from roughly 40 percent of Maine’s electorate could translate to his re-election, especially if Democrats cannot field stronger candidates than they did in the 2010 governor’s race and 2012 U.S. Senate contest.
Even if LePage’s value at the ballot box falls short of GOP expectations, Gagnon believes history bodes well for Republicans in 2014.
“Even if they did nothing, they should be sitting in a significantly improved position than this year,” he said, because off-year elections tend to draw more conservative, older voters. “In addition, the president won re-election, and with very few historical exceptions, the party in power almost unfailingly loses influence in his mid-term elections, particularly his second mid-term.”
To take advantage of that historical edge, the Maine Republican Party will have to retake control of how it defines itself for Maine voters, Demeritt said. “Republicans weren’t able to connect their accomplishments to the voters this year in a way that was tangible,” he said. “It gave Democrats a chance to call the GOP agenda extremist, before it had a chance.”
Gagnon agrees. “The Republican Party needs to make some changes on a few issues, there is absolutely no doubt about that,” he said. “But what is lost in the debate … is that the real failure of the Republican Party is its loss of ability to relate to many voters, its inability to identify with them. What is really needed isn’t more conservatism or more moderation, but more understanding, more connection with the voters and more serious statesmanship.”
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.