June 24, 2018
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Can Maine Republicans heal divisions within?


Republicans in Maine have had a worse year than the Red Sox.

Chaos dominated the presidential preference caucuses in February and the state convention in May. Conflict between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul supporters over Republican National Convention delegate seating forced national party officials to intervene in a way that reflected negatively on Maine Republicans. Then the GOP lost all three of this year’s elections for Maine’s federal offices and the legislative majorities it had captured in 2010.

After the election, unsubstantiated claims by former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster about “ dozens of black people” unfamiliar to municipal officials voting Nov. 6 in Maine towns attracted more negative national attention and led the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Brennan Center for Justice — on Webster’s last full day as chairman — to request an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

This year, the Maine GOP garnered more attention for controversy than for a clear political message. The in-fighting over control of the party distanced it from its traditional roots in fiscal conservatism and limited government and conveyed to voters an impression that Maine Republicans are ill equipped to run the government.

The party needs to convince voters that the GOP can apply its mission statement in a way that makes government function well. To this end — concluding that a drawn-out battle to succeed Webster would further divide an already beleaguered party — Beth O’Connor withdrew her candidacy after being nominated Saturday, allowing the Maine Republican State Committee to elect Richard Cebra unanimously to serve as its new chairman.

O’Connor, who was later elected the party’s vice chairwoman, said she placed party unity before ideology in making her withdrawal decision. O’Connor’s action embodies the first of five priorities listed in a 12-page plan “to restore the Maine Republican Party” that she prepared prior to Saturday’s chairmanship vote. It promotes “a healthy environment of collaboration in which we can heal divides and work together as a party.”

To do so, Cebra and O’Connor, who adhered to staunchly conservative agendas as legislators, must find common ground with others in their party. The enduring successes of moderates like Maine Republicans Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins should inform the party’s new leaders that highlighting fiscal responsibility, while rejecting a rigid social agenda, will differentiate the Maine GOP from Democrats — and give voters a strong choice the next time they go to the polls.

Whether Cebra and O’Connor can promote sufficient collaboration to close the rifts that opened this year will determine whether Maine’s Republicans “are all ready to move forward,” as O’Connor supporter Jonathan Pfaff of Portland said Saturday. Based on the shock and disappointment Pfaff expressed immediately after the chairmanship vote, the Maine GOP’s new leaders still have much work to do to bring the party’s various factions together.

O’Connor’s plan provides a framework for that rebuilding process. In addition to “collaboration,” her list of priorities urges the party’s leaders to emphasize “transparency” and “accountability” and “engage volunteers and voters from as many angles as possible.”

One way to connect more effectively with voters would be to open the Maine Republican State Committee’s general meetings to the public. Doing so would demonstrate the party’s willingness to “begin to understand the voters they want to attract and talk about their problems,” as Republican strategist Matthew Gagnon wrote in a recent Pine Tree Politics blog about what the GOP must do to improve its political prospects.

O’Connor said the soul-searching that prompted her not to seek the chairmanship derived from “a lot of listening.” Expanding that focus on listening beyond party insiders may help Republicans in Maine refine their message in a way that could better show how the GOP’s core principles align with what voters want from the people who aspire to lead them.

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