Someone turn off the irony alarm. By now, the whole world knows the Maine Republican Party, which spent much of the past year telling us how to run our elections, can’t even manage its own statewide caucuses.
“I didn’t make the rules, the party made the rules,” said Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “I’ve got 900 emails and I’m just going click, gone, click, gone … not even opening them.”
He has good reason. The vast majority of those emails are from away – and they’re not exactly flattering in their portrayal of Maine’s latest foray into GOP presidential politics.
“This is an outrage,” fumed John Tate, campaign manager for Ron Paul 2012, in an email to supporters after results from the non-binding poll were announced Saturday to show who Maine Republicans prefer for president.
That would be Mitt Romney, at least for now. As he lurches toward what many still consider his inevitable coronation at the Republican National Convention in August, the former Massachusetts governor got the boost he so desperately needed with a 194-vote win over libertarian upstart Ron Paul.
Or did he?
First, this being a tragic comedy and all, let’s set the stage:
A few weeks ago, Maine wasn’t even a speed bump on the road to the GOP nomination. Aside from Paul, who figured he might pick up a few national delegates here while no one else was looking, few knew exactly how this caucus thing was supposed to work, and fewer still much cared.
But then Rick Santorum hit the trifecta on Feb. 7 with wins in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and the Missouri primary.
And there stood Romney, who was supposed to have this whole thing wrapped up by now, badly in need of another win. Any win. Even a Maine-non-binding-straw-poll win.
Put more simply, the national spotlight suddenly and unexpectedly turned on Maine – where most (but not all) of the caucuses were to be held no later than Saturday and all (or at least most) of the results were to be released just in time for Saturday’s network news.
Now let’s go to the replay.
We begin with Washington County, where Saturday’s local caucuses – all to be held under one roof at Washington Academy – were postponed because of a snowstorm.
According to Chris Gardner, the county’s GOP chairman, the decision was made only after he polled his 20 or so town chairs Friday evening and all agreed that the wintry forecast sounded too ominous to go ahead with the caucuses.
“We decided to put people before politics and err on the side of caution,” Gardner said. “So that was it. Not an issue. We were all set.”
That is, until Gardner heard late Saturday that Webster had declared the whole thing over – no caucuses held after Saturday would count in the final state totals.
Gardner, a Romney supporter, immediately got on the horn to Webster and other state party officials to protest what he considered an about-face: When the possibility of postponement had been discussed earlier, he said, he’d been told that Washington County’s numbers would not be part of the “national announcement” but would be added later to the final tally.
“If the state Republican Party thinks that by doing a Colonel Klink – saying ‘I see nothing’ – they can somehow negate the votes of these outlying towns, they’re fooling themselves,” Gardner said Tuesday. “We’re going to have our vote. We’re going to do it in the formal process. And we’re going to release it.”
Ah, but will it matter? According to Chairman Webster, that will be decided only when the Republican State Committee convenes on March 10.
We move next to Waldo County, where the caucus results posted on the state party’s website don’t come close to matching those compiled by the county. While the state GOP says Paul got 37 votes to Romney’s 30, Waldo County’s spreadsheet shows Paul winning, 71-50.
Contacted Tuesday, Waldo County Republican Party Chairman Raymond St. Onge explained that several towns held a “super caucus” in Belfast on Feb. 4 and he faxed those results to state party headquarters a few days later.
The problem, St. Onge said, is that those early returns were never added to those from the other Waldo County towns that caucused and reported in on Saturday – leaving his county’s overall results incomplete.
Then there’s the city of Waterville, where 21 people voted for Paul, five went with Romney and three lined up behind Newt Gingrich. Those results don’t appear in the state GOP’s tally, which shows nothing but goose eggs for the Elm City.
“I don’t think there was any foul play or anything there. I just think it just somehow got left out,” Neal Patterson, who chaired the Waterville caucus, said Tuesday. “If there’s a posting on the Web, and I haven’t researched the Web, I would expect it would now reflect Waterville’s totals.”
Except it doesn’t.
The good news, of course, is that these and God knows what other snafus that occurred last weekend can do only so much damage. Caucuses or no caucuses, the decision on which presidential candidates get which of Maine’s 24 delegates to the national convention won’t be made until Maine Republicans gather for their state convention in May.
But it’s hard not to look at all the confusion – and the national head-shaking that comes with it – and remember Chairman Webster’s oft-repeated claims last year that Maine’s election system is rife with fraud and that we all should get behind the GOP’s efforts to “fix” it.
So what say you now, Charlie?
“I thought it worked pretty well,” Webster replied. “The Dems have all the staff, we don’t. We have one person. We’re conservative. We don’t hire people we don’t need.”
As for all the local glitches – there’s also some muttering among Paul supporters in Oxford County – Webster said the state party did everything it could to explain the rules to the county and town committees.
Beyond that, he said, “we can’t hold these people’s hands.”
But you might at least count their votes.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]