AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican State Committee elected Richard Cebra as its new chairman on Saturday morning.
Cebra, who just completed his fourth term as a state representative from Naples, won by unanimous vote after Beth O’Connor, the only other nominee for the position, withdrew her name from consideration. O’Connor will serve as the party’s vice chairwoman.
Gov. Paul LePage had endorsed Cebra to become the party’s next chairman.
Cebra succeeds Charlie Webster, whose four years as state party chairman crested in 2010 when the party seized control of both chambers of the Maine Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since the 1960s. After Democrats regained control of both legislative chambers and won all three races for federal office this year, Webster announced that he would not seek re-election.
“It’s a new day in Maine,” said Cebra, who praised O’Connor’s withdrawal as a sign that the Maine Republican Party “is a unified party that works.” He said he planned to focus initially on “ground work,” building the party’s base by strengthening local and county committees.
John Frary, a committee member and party stalwart from Farmington, described O’Connor’s withdrawal as “a noble gesture for party unity.”
In addition to fortifying grassroots efforts and becoming more united, Cebra said Maine Republicans need to highlight for voters the party’s core principles of “liberty, free enterprise and small government.” Doing so will enable the GOP to fulfill what Cebra called his main goal: winning in 2014.
“Our message is the right message for the people of Maine,” he said.
Based on his eight years in the Legislature and posts on his website, Cebra’s message will be a staunchly conservative one. He has aggressively opposed the Affordable Care Act, including sponsorship of LD 58, a failed 2011 legislative attempt to invalidate President Barack Obama’s health care reform law in Maine. He has also demonstrated a willingness to wrangle with Democrats over state and federal policy, typically advocating against government spending and regulation while promoting conservative social values.
In that vein, Cebra will likely emulate Webster. But he appears less likely to carry on another focus of Webster’s tenure. During his four years as party chairman, Webster often railed against alleged voter fraud in Maine. Most recently, he alleged that “dozens of black people” who were unfamiliar to municipal officials voted Nov. 6 in rural Maine towns. The Maine secretary of state’s office has yet to deem any of Webster’s claims of voter fraud to be credible.
When asked, Cebra said ferreting out possible voter fraud would not be one of his priorities. He described his new role as party chairman to be one of leadership, “not to set agendas or to set policy.”
Cebra’s election drew criticism from the liberal Maine People’s Alliance.
“Rather than changing to reflect the values Maine people expressed in the recent election, the Maine Republican Party has doubled down on extremism by choosing Rich Cebra as its next [state chairman],” Mike Tipping, the association’s communications director, wrote in an email. Tipping went on to say that “Cebra has an extreme, marginal view [on health care], and his election shows the Republican Party in Maine will, unfortunately, continue to be controlled by the tea party fringe.”
O’Connor, a Berwick resident who on Nov. 6 lost her bid for a second term representing Maine House District 145, will serve as the Maine GOP’s vice chairwoman. A surprise nominee for the party’s No. 2 post, she won a three-way contest against Stavros Mendros of Lewiston and Traci Gauthier of Lincoln.
The 81 Maine State Republican Committee members who attended a meeting that was closed to the media at the Augusta City Center eliminated Mendros on the first ballot for vice chairman. O’Connor won a majority of votes cast on the second ballot.
O’Connor said party unity prompted her decision not to seek the chairmanship. A sleepless night and concerns that a leadership battle would further divide Maine Republicans — who drew national attention for conflict between Ron Paul supporters and party regulars during this year’s presidential caucuses, state convention and national convention — prompted her withdrawal decision, O’Connor said.
In preparation for her bid to lead the party, O’Connor crafted a 12-page plan to “restore the Maine Republican Party.” After Saturday’s vote, she expressed hope that the plan could still serve as a blueprint for positioning the GOP for a better showing at the polls in 2014. LePage’s and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ terms expire that year, and the GOP hopes to reverse Democratic gains in this year’s legislative elections.
“He knows I crack a whip,” O’Connor said of her potential working relationship with Cebra, with whom she served in the 125th Legislature. “We’ll be a good team.”
After adjourning his final meeting as chairman, Webster reiterated his contention that he helped “rebrand” the Maine GOP as the party for working people. He said that he employed the same campaign strategy this year as in 2010, but that Democrats outspent Republicans and did a better job of turning out voters in key 2012 legislative races.
“I’m sorry to see Maine go the way of New Jersey,” Webster said of the increase in campaign spending and what he described as “character assassination” by Democrats during this year’s legislative elections. He also attributed the Democrats’ success this year to greater financial and logistical support from labor unions.
“If that’s what it takes to get elected, then I don’t want to be in politics,” Webster said, before quickly adding that he plans to continue to do whatever he can to help elect Republican candidates in Maine.
Webster also repeated his assertion that Democratic policies have made Maine “a welfare state,” which caused both his daughters to move away.
The former chairman said that he continues to receive reports from residents of rural Maine towns that unfamiliar people voted there, but he refused to identify any of those communities when pressed Saturday. He said he has yet to make a final decision on whether to conduct his own probe of alleged voter fraud, which would involve mailing postcards to voters who registered on Election Day, then using the number returned as undeliverable as a gauge of possible fraud.
If he does so, it will be as a private citizen with no affiliation to the Maine State Republican Committee, he said.