Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:20 p.m.
AUGUSTA — A band of right-leaning hard-liners left the Maine GOP, resigning from various state Republican offices, while issuing a letter critical of the national party as well as key politicians in Washington and Augusta.
Leaving were a Maine Republican National Committee member, a former U.S. Senate candidate and six members holding county committee seats.
Libertarian-leaning RNC member Mark Willis of Washington County and the others resigned in a letter Sunday.
The letter was signed by six other Republicans, including former Senate candidate Scott D'Amboise and Sam Canders, who challenged Rick Bennett for state party chairman last month. All 13 said they are withdrawing from the party.
"We can no longer associate ourselves with a political party that goes out of its way to continually restrict our freedoms and liberties as well as reaching deeper and deeper into our wallets," they wrote in the letter to the state GOP.
Bennett, elected state party chairman in July, said he was disappointed and regretted the group's decision to leave but said he was also grateful those who are party officials did so now and not in the throws of a statewide gubernatorial, U.S. congressional and state legislative races in 2014.
"If they cannot support for whatever reason our candidates, it's better they make that decision sooner, so appreciate their sense of timing on this," Bennett said. "But I do think it's regrettable, I hate to lose them but it's an individual choice."
The group pointed to a number of issues including Maine GOP lawmakers' failure to override Gov. Paul LePage's veto of the state budget, which raised the meals and lodging and sales taxes. The group was also angered over a LePage veto of a bill that would have allowed dairy farmers to sell fresh, but unprocessed, milk.
They also criticized Republicans in Congress for backing "feel good," restrictive and ineffective gun control legislation.
"If they want to stop others from leaving ... then they need to start following the platform of the Republican Party and start legislating and governing like Republicans are supposed to be," Willis said Monday.
The group is upset about rules adopted at the 2012 national convention that make it difficult for insurgent candidates to get nominated.
Bennett said he recognized it was a relatively small group within the party but dismissed the notion they were a fringe element or extreme right-wingers.
"I always eschew labels like that because they are become increasingly meaningless," Bennett said. "It's hard to say, I think they've expressed themselves on a variety of issues they are unhappy with, and I get that."
Bennett said his own view is to take a broader look and see the GOP in its totality. "When you are in a party office, you really should look at the balance of the times you agree with the party position and party leadership," Bennett said. "If you are with the Republican office holders 80 percent of the time, you are probably not with the Democrats anywhere near that. When you are serving in party office, you have to accommodate."
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, also an Androscoggin County committee member with the party, said he was disappointed but not that surprised by the resignations.
He said the state's Republican Party was a diverse group with members ranging from the "very conservative" to "some very moderate."
"If they are not happy with the way the Republican Party is going and they are resigning, that's a decision they have to make," Timberlake said. "It's always better if we can keep everybody united but this is their decision to make."
Timberlake said party members are frequently in disagreement but don't resign over it.
"Not everybody is going to agree with everything, just like my wife and I don't agree on everything every day, but we don't get a divorce over everything we disagree on," Timberlake said. "If these folks want a divorce because they don't agree with us, that's a choice they have to make. The party will move on as a strong and forceful party and we will move forward and may be better for it."
Many in the group had been supportive of former U.S Congressman Ron Paul and his bid for the presidency in 2012.
Eric Brakey, a committeeman from Cumberland County and the chairman of Paul's campaign in Maine, said he too was sorry to see the group leave.
"I'm very disappointed to see these people go," Brakey said. "These are very good people who have given a lot."
Brakey, who is making his own bid for the state Senate in 2014, is also the chairman of the Defense of Liberty PAC, said the group's movement was making progress within the party in Maine.
He said in only five years the so-called "liberty movement" had made substantial inroads.
He said those who supported Paul in 2012 have watch support for his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, grow throughout the Republican rank-and-file.
He also said that while LePage sometimes parted ways with the libertarian flank on some issues, he was by far, "the best governor we've had in this state in decades."
"We've been working hard to bring the liberty and constitutional message into the Republican Party and we are winning that," Brakey said. "You can see the progress of that over the last five years."
Shifting directions or policy within a political party took time, he said.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," he said.
Like Timberlake, he said the party would move on noting that the vacated county seats would likely be filled during the next monthly county committee meetings.
The Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.