TAMPA, Fla. – Maine Republicans went home from their party’s national convention this week barely on speaking terms, after a deep divide flared in front of thousands of fellow party members and media from around the world.

But there should be plenty of talk in Waterville on Saturday, when the Maine Republican Party’s State Committee meets in the wake of the dispute between party stalwarts and supporters of libertarian Ron Paul.

The decision by Republican National Committee members to unseat some delegates and alternates loyal to Paul at Mitt Romney’s nominating party infuriated and energized libertarians within the Maine Republican Party.

With self-described libertarians and constitutionalists holding nearly half of the State Committee’s seats, they plan to speak out against what they see as unfair treatment of Paul’s supporters at the Republican National Convention — treatment they say began in Maine, continued in Tampa and is coming back home to roost.

“It’s going to be very difficult this Saturday,” said Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the Aroostook County Republican Committee and one of the 10 Romney supporters who were chosen to replace the 10 displaced Paul delegates.

In some ways, Gahagan has his feet in both factions of a Maine Republican Party that, working together, helped elect conservative Gov. Paul LePage and Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature in 2010.

Although he’s a Romney supporter who has been active in Maine Republican politics for decades, he considers himself libertarian-minded.

Whether that coalition is splintering or simply having growing pains could determine whether Republicans maintain their historic gains in Maine, a state that before 2010 was regarded as solidly Democratic.

The Paul supporters who went to Tampa this week have said they aren’t going away.

“We are staying involved at the local level,” said Brent Tweed, a leader of the pro-Paul delegation, after he and others walked out of the convention hall in protest. “They have only energized our people.”

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said there is no question that the issue is coming back to Maine from Tampa. But he said it’s hard to say so soon how it will affect Republican politics in Maine, heading into November elections in which Democrats hope to regain control of the State House.

“I generally tend to think that, by the time we get to November, that the implications won’t be as grave as they are right now,” he said.

Brewer said he believes that Paul’s supporters, tea party members and others who are frustrated with recent events will want to avoid the consequences of a divided party.

The biggest, most immediate consequence, he said, would be enabling Democrats in the Legislature to shut down LePage’s policy agenda.

LePage’s decision to skip the national convention after the RNC unseated the 10 delegates appeared to give him an instant boost among the Paul supporters in Tampa, who thanked LePage publicly and in a news release.

But Brewer noted that the dispute in Maine between traditional Republicans and the newer wave of libertarians is playing out across the country. He foresees potentially much bigger, long-term implications for the party nationally.

“This is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party and what the Republican Party is all about going forward,” Brewer said. “I think this is just the latest in a series of battles of different factions within the GOP.”

That struggle was on full display at the convention in Tampa, despite RNC officials’ attempts to show a party unified behind Romney.

“The Maine delegates,” as they became known, were the stars of a minor story line that kept going for three days thanks to some vocal, highly visible sympathizers from Texas and the media’s appetite for anything unscripted amid the convention’s stage shows.

The first sign that Maine’s skirmish with RNC officials might be something bigger came when chants of “Seat Maine now!” filled the convention hall Tuesday.

When those chants went unheeded, Maine’s Paul delegates and more than 100 supporters marched around the arena’s perimeter walkway chanting, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” as the convention continued uninterrupted.

In a twist on the old saying, the protesters were citing the experience of Maine’s Paul delegates as a warning about Republican leaders trying to silence state delegations and grass-roots groups that don’t support “establishment candidates.”

The even bigger issue, marchers said, were rules changes made at the convention that allow party leaders to make such power grabs.

By the end of the week, the debate that the “Ron Paul army” was pushing in Tampa — virtually all of it off the strictly controlled convention floor — was about the national fight for immediate recognition by and respect from the larger party.

More than 100 libertarians held a news conference outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday evening, featuring speakers from Texas, Maine, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina and other states where Paul’s supporters felt slighted.

“Grass-roots Republicans are essential to the health and unity of our party,” said Luis LaRotta of Texas. “We must all move forward to bring the party together. We are enthusiastic about removing Barack Obama from office, but we are concerned that the actions of some in the party leadership are jeopardizing our opportunity to get this done.”

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, was a delegate in Tampa and a member of the RNC. He tried to negotiate a compromise between the RNC and Paul’s supporters, who rejected it because it likely would have required Paul delegates to vote for Romney.

In interviews this week in Tampa, Webster said he thought the blow-up was unfortunate and could have been avoided, if Paul’s delegates had been more willing to compromise.

Webster said he expects a tense meeting Saturday but he believes that over the long term, the tensions will be worked out without significantly affecting the Maine GOP or the state’s relationship with the RNC.

Mike Wallace, a Paul delegate from Maine who is running for state Senate, said he hopes that the two sides can learn to work together.

“I don’t know what the end result is going to be,” he said Thursday evening on the convention floor, “but I think it will work out.”

Wallace then joined the rest of the Paul delegates outside the convention hall — who were refusing to watch Romney’s acceptance speech.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317- 6256 or at:

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