For being relegated to legislative minorities by last year’s elections, Maine Republicans were notably effective in getting their way this past legislative session.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto pen certainly helped. Thanks to the governor, Republicans were able to beat back Democratic efforts to expand public health insurance for low-income Mainers, resist Democratic attempts to roll back parts of a two-year-old GOP-championed health insurance overhaul and prevent a hike in the state’s minimum wage.
During budget talks, Republicans were able to protect income tax cuts prized by their party and reviled by Democrats.
But the GOP’s success wasn’t only in opposing Democratic initiatives.
Republicans were on the offensive as they pushed LePage’s plan to repay Maine’s $484 million Medicaid debt to its 39 hospitals. Democrats initially resisted, then proposed a debt repayment alternative. Ultimately, they agreed to virtually all of the governor’s initial plan and passed the legislation unanimously.
Republicans drove the conversation — and got their way — when it came to shielding the personal information of concealed weapons permit holders from public view.
And just last week, Republicans set the parameters for a $149.5 million bond package that’s expected to go before the full Legislature at the end of this month.
But during this streak of relative success, the Maine Republican Party has been reeling from controversy.
Last winter, GOP activists in Penobscot County publicly objected to the party’s management and handling of county-level committee elections and quit the party. In early July, party Chairman Rich Cebra and Vice-Chairwoman Beth O’Connor resigned from their posts, signaling the party hadn’t overcome divisions that were on display in 2012 when supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul took over the Maine GOP’s convention and secured spots to represent Maine at the Republican National Convention.
The national party later rejected many of Maine’s delegates, further heightening the tension between the party’s libertarian wing and the rest of the party.
It seemed, however, that the party was beginning to heal last month. The party chose Rick Bennett as its chairman, and members of the party’s libertarian wing endorsed him.
Then, on Sunday, 13 Republicans — including the state party’s national Republican committeeman and one of the candidates who challenged Bennett for the party chairmanship — announced they were abandoning their party.
In a letter outlining their discontent, the 13 GOP members didn’t hold back blame. They blamed LePage for supporting the Common Core academic standards that about 45 other states have also adopted; they faulted GOP lawmakers for failing to uphold LePage’s veto of a budget that raises taxes; and they criticised Republican leadership in the U.S. House for their “utter disdain for the United States Constitution.”
Clearly, not all is well within the Maine Republican Party. But does it matter?
The 13 resignations from the GOP came about a week before a test that will prove whether the intra-party strife is meaningful or a distraction.
On Tuesday, voters in Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties will head to the polls to elect a replacement for state Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, the Senate majority leader who resigned earlier this summer to become a regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The election is taking place in a competitive district, and both parties have been pouring resources into the race. The Maine Republican Party has spent more than $45,000 to help Paula Benoit’s election chances, according to a check of Maine Ethics Commission records Thursday morning. Democratic Party accounts have poured in nearly $74,000 to help Eloise Vitelli.
About 36,000 people live in each Maine Senate district.
The winning side will surely draw a larger meaning from its victory. If Vitelli wins, Democrats will claim it’s a sure sign voters are disgusted with LePage’s leadership. If Benoit is victorious, Republicans will claim voters are disgusted with the Legislature’s Democratic majorities.
In reality, the outcome of Tuesday’s election will be an indication of which party has the stronger ground game — a greater ability to turn out voters for an end-of-August election when few are typically tuned into politics.
If Republicans pull off a victory, they can legitimately claim their party is able to do what it’s supposed to be able to do — win elections — and that the party’s infighting is just a distraction.