BANGOR, Maine — If there was one storyline from the first day of this year’s Maine Republican Convention, it was that there were no surprises.
After two raucous conventions that saw party insurgents hijack the Maine GOP’s platform in 2010 and the entire convention in 2012, Republicans at the Cross Insurance Center made good Friday on a promise to eliminate drama from their biennial gathering.
“I think people were wondering what kind of convention this would be after our experiences with previous ones, which had really tended to focus — not only in the press but within the party — on divisiveness,” said State Republican Chairman Rick Bennett. “But there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us, and that was on full display today.”
There’s a few reasons for that unity.
The first is pure logistics: Party members were given until February to propose amendments to the platform, negating any opportunity for a wholesale revision on the floor of the convention. Plus, security around the convention floor was tight, allowing only certified delegates. Party officials said this prevented the kind of confusion and chaos that led to problems in 2012, when supporters of former Texas congressman and right-wing libertarian Ron Paul’s presidential bid took over the convention.
The second cause of the party’s newfound unity is the number of former insurgents who have been integrated into the mainstream of the party. Many members of the tea party revolution in 2010 and the Ron Paul uprising of 2012 now occupy prominent positions in Maine’s GOP.
People such as Eric Brakey, a candidate for state Senate in Androscoggin County and one of the Paul supporters who took over two years ago. Brakey said many of the party’s former malcontents have been given a stake in the game. In other words, the rebels have been brought into the fold.
Several Ron Paul activists have also been integrated. There’s Ashley Ryan of Portland, who walked out of the Republican National Convention in 2012 when the party refused to seat her and other Maine delegates for Paul. There’s also Jonathan Pfaff, another of Paul’s supporters, who two years ago condemned the state and national party for invalidating Maine’s delegates and now leads the Cumberland County Republicans and is running for the Maine House of Representatives.
“You give people a stake in a community, you welcome some of those people into leadership … Then they’re here, and they’re working,” Brakey said.
Others who caused headaches for establishment Republicans in 2010 and 2012 have left the party altogether. Last summer, Maine’s Republican National Committeeman Mark Willis and six members of the state committee quit the GOP.
Victor Berardelli of Newburgh leads the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus. He said many of those who left were members of his group, who became disillusioned with the party, and now he’s trying to rebuild not only his group, but the sense of unity in the party.
“I’m recruiting new members, people who have not been part of politics, who are cynical of the process,” he said. “But I’m trying to explain that if we’re civil, if we work from within, we can effect change.”
Berardelli credited Bennett with being willing to listen to voices within the party that had previously been marginalized. Former state Chairman Charlie Webster famously called the libertarian and tea party factions “wingnuts.”
“Rick is acknowledging that our wing exists, which is refreshing from the way things worked when Charlie Webster was chairman,” Berardelli said.
The third — and perhaps strongest — uniting force was Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose statewide favorability is low but is incredibly popular among members of his own party.
LePage is running in a three-way race for governor this year. His opponents are U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, and independent businessmen Eliot Cutler. Most observers predict a tight race between LePage and Michaud.
The governor was the common theme Friday. No matter what wing of the party any particular activist represented — libertarian, tea party, establishment or hard-line conservative — support for LePage was near universal.
Most of the afternoon’s speakers spent a large amount of their time drumming up enthusiasm for the governor and slamming Michaud, who they portrayed as an ineffective congressman who would increase spending and take marching orders from national Democrats and unions if elected governor.
“I urge you to get involved, because it will determine whether we’re free or will remain forever slaves to hopeless debt,” said Mary Adams, a longtime anti-tax activist from Garland. “With his liberal voting record, a vote for Mike Michaud would be like putting [U.S. House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi in the Blaine House.”
Maine’s Democratic Party Chairman, Ben Grant, said Republican unity came at the expense of winning over new voters.
“They’re uniting around the most conservative elements of their party,” he said in an interview. “They’re running a campaign about firing up the base. They’re not reaching out to anyone else.”
The party has trumpeted efforts to expand its base, to bring in more young people, women and minorities. But Grant said it was all a show. For example, he pointed to the GOP’s new platform, which was approved Friday and contains a provision opposing same-sex marriage, which was approved by voters in 2012.
“They’re talking a good game, but the underlying policies or values haven’t changed,” Grant said. “The people of Maine spoke loud, clear and recently, saying that marriage should be expanded to gay and lesbian couples, but [Republicans] have doubled down on the opposite. That’s not reaching out.”
The convention continues Saturday, with most of the event’s most high profile speakers, including the libertarian favorite, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, Ron Paul’s son.
Also taking the stage are Collins, LePage, and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as the GOP’s 2nd Congressional District candidates, former state Senate President Kevin Raye and former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.