AUGUSTA — Saturday’s election of Rick Bennett as Maine Republican Party chairman is being touted as a step toward mending ideological fractures that split the party during last year’s state convention and have widened since that May 2012 gathering.
But Bennett won’t ask tea party adherents or moderate Republicans to abandon those ideologies. Instead, he said his goal is to energize Republicans across the ideological spectrum without asking them to sacrifice their beliefs.
“Republicans believe in limited government, free markets and individual freedoms,” Bennett of Oxford said Monday. “There are a lot of different leaders out there who inspire different people and we have a lot of new energy coming into the party in the last few years, whether they support Gov. [Paul] LePage, Ron Paul or Mitt Romney, re-electing Sen. [Susan] Collins or supporting their local candidate. While many different reasons may bring people to the Republican party, there’s a lot that unites us and we’re going to build on that.”
With LePage facing what looms as a difficult re-election bid in 2014, unity between the party and the governor’s team — which was not evident when Charlie Webster chaired the party during LePage’s first two years in office — will be critical, according to political consultant Dan Demeritt, who worked for LePage during the campaign and early in the governor’s first term.
“Rick is well-established, respected, very well-spoken and articulate,” said Demeritt. “You know with Rick you’re going to get someone who is going to be strategic in his public comments and have a message coming out of the party that advances an agenda that won’t cause any conflicts with the elected officials.”
Webster’s public comments often sparked controversy, as was the case in November 2012 when his suggestion that “ dozens of black people” unknown to local election election officials had voted in Maine spurred the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to request a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
Richard Cebra, who succeeded Webster, rarely spoke in public, a fact that frustrated party members. His leadership style also drew criticism from GOP activists, especially those aligned with the wing of the party that supported Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid.
Citing “personal reasons,” Cebra resigned abruptly earlier this month after less than seven months on the job, leaving the party searching for a leader less than 16 months before statewide elections. Bennett won that post Saturday.
Bennett has been involved in Republican politics at the state and national level for decades. In addition to a tenure in the Maine Legislature, including a term as Senate president, Bennett has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1994 and lost a primary bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012. Those who support Bennett said he represents a good mix between being an eloquent communicator and being someone with ample political connections that will help him recruit candidates and raise money.
Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus who represents Penobscot County on the Republican State Committee, which elected Bennett, said he was one of the people who recruited Bennett even though Bennett is more moderate on some issues than he and other libertarian Republicans.
“He’s someone who has one foot in all factions of the party, with broad arms that can bring them all together,” said Berardelli. “He knows the party establishment. As chairman of the Maine Liberty Caucus, I can see that he listens to us and takes under serious advisement what we have to say.”
Berardelli and others said that some factions of the party have felt unwelcome in the GOP at times. It was perhaps never more evident than last year at the Republican National Convention in Florida when several Ron Paul supporters from Maine were not allowed to be seated because of organizational problems caused by a huge turnout at the state convention months before.
Matthew McDonald, now of Gorham, was one of those Paul supporters. He’s pleased with Bennett’s election, which came after the sudden resignation last month of Richard Cebra for personal reasons after just seven months on the job.
“He’s accomplished a lot. He’s an educated businessman who will put those principles into the party,” said McDonald. “I think he’ll do a fine job and that everyone will be happy at the end of the day. There certainly is a fraction or division in our party … I see Rick as a person who’s able to reach across bridges and listen to all sides.”
Bennett, who was endorsed by LePage and others before the election, said he’ll keep the same party staff in place, including Executive Director Jason Savage, who is a LePage ally.
Webster, who served as GOP chairman in 2010 when LePage won the Blaine House and the party gained control of the Maine House and Senate, said Bennett’s statewide connections will help him with fundraising and recruitment.
“I’m sure Rick will run the party like a business,” said Webster. “He seems like a capable guy and raising money is the most important thing the chair has to do, from my point of view.”
Jonathan McKane of Newcastle, a former legislator who was on the ballot against Bennett, said he became a candidate before Bennett was recruited, but opted to stay in the race so he could address the state committee Saturday at its meeting in Augusta. He said his speech was about bringing political activists who have been alienated back to the GOP.
“My goal would have been to do everything possible to get that energy we saw at the 2012 convention harnessed,” said McKane. “We need to get those people back and I’m hoping that’s one of Rick’s main goals. I’ve got great expectations for him and I’ll help him in any way I can. … The Democrats are loaded with money and they have an incredibly well-organized machine that reaches into every community. The good news is that Republicans still own the issues and the average voter aligns more with us when it comes to taxes, business regulation, environmental regulations and experiments in health care and Obamacare. When we can articulate our message and get it out to the people, we have them.”
Even Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant acknowledged that Bennett was a wise choice.
“I think it’s good that they are finally putting an adult in charge over there at the Republican party,” said Grant. “They still have the same problem, and that’s the LePage administration. It’s interesting that they have found sort of an established Republican for a party that’s made up of anti-establishment tax cut folks.”
David Farmer, who worked for several years under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, said he also respects Bennett’s qualifications and wondered whether his election is a sign that the Maine GOP is trying to change.
“One of the questions is, is this directly or indirectly a move to moderate the party?” Farmer said.
Bennett, a Harvard University and University of Southern Maine graduate who runs his own business and has two teenage children, said he will be open and accessible but will likely leave debates around policy matters to others. He said taking the chairmanship job doesn’t rule out future runs for political office.
“I expect to step aside as much as possible to give room for our candidates to speak,” he said. “Job No. 1 for party leaders is to support candidates with a well-functioning ground game. Maine people deserve choices in their elections.”