AUGUSTA – Diminished ranks of Maine House Republicans looked to a fresh face to lead them during their upcoming role in the minority.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, who was just elected to his second term in the House, was nominated Wednesday after nine floor speeches marked by regret, frustration and soul searching for a party that briefly held the majority but suffered devastating election losses last week.
Fredette promised a new approach for Republicans who are considering the best way to protect policy gains over the past two years and a path to retake the majority in the Legislature.
Frededette, 48, vowed to grow the ranks of the party, who some members believe has a sound economic message, but is alienating key portions of the electorate. He defeated Sangerville Rep. Paul Davis, who had served two terms as Senate minority leader beginning in 2002, and outgoing House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting of Oakland.
Fredette said Maine Republicans had “suffered a great defeat” last week, but in its “darkest hour” must seek to broaden its message.
“We must be ready to embrace more women, and we must be ready to embrace more young people, and we must be ready to embrace more leadership, not less,” he said.
The nomination speeches were laden with frustration to account for the loss of at least 20 seats on Election Day. The losses came amid a resurgent Democratic party that Republicans acknowledged brought out more voters while also appealing to women, minorities and young people.
Fredette was touted for his ability to work with Democrats on the Legislature’s budget writing committee and as a young, emerging leader willing to work with Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the incoming Democratic majority. Davis was considered a staunch supporter of LePage, who has shown little tolerance for dissent among Republicans, much less Democrats.
Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington spoke on Fredette’s behalf. Harvell, known for delivering thundering floor speeches laden with historical references, upped the ante on Wednesday. He said that Republicans needed a leader who could work with LePage, but not give in to the governor’s every wish.
Absent that leader, Harvell said, the Republican ranks would be divided.
“We need a leader that is going to hold us together or we’re going to get rolled,” Harvell said. “Ken Fredette is the man.”
Harvell said Republicans had a “superior message” but that it had failed to connect with younger voters and women.
“We took a shellacking with the young and the women,” Harvell said. “If we continue this trend we should pack up and go home.”
He added, “Democrats know that the population outside this building is conservative. They know it, but they govern differently.”
Afterward, Harvell said that Republicans “would go off a cliff” if they didn’t pick a leader who was willing to break with LePage on occasion. In general, he said, the party should steer clear of “petty social wedge issues” and focus on its economic message.
Lawmakers like Harvell feared gridlock and a fractured Republican caucus if Davis was elected.
But Davis had strong support, too, particularly among staunch LePage allies.
Burlington Rep. Beth Turner spoke for Davis. She hinted at Republicans’ frustration with an election that stripped them of their two-year majority.
Turner said that the party’s accomplishments did not make it to the campaign trail.
“Somehow our message of success did not reach the people of Maine with clarity and conviction,” Turner said.
Before his nomination speech, Davis said it wasn’t his place to criticize efforts to retain or grow the Republican majority. However, he suggested that he would make doing so a priority as the Republican leader.
“I thought this summer that we were going to lose some seats, but I never thought that we’d lose 25 percent,” Davis said during his speech.
Davis said Republicans needed to focus on recruiting solid candidates, “not jockeying for leadership in the next race.”
“We need to train our troops … we need to train them in electioneering,” he added. “… I don’t want any candidate to feel like they’re out there alone.”
Nutting struck a somber tone. The outgoing House Speaker’s leadership run was a late development that raised eyebrows among some Republican members, who blamed him and other leaders for the election loses.
Specifically, members privately grumbled about the re-election strategy that focused too little on Republicans’ legislative accomplishments.
As speaker, Nutting played some part in the decisions to protect Republican incumbents or elect new lawmakers. Nutting’s political action committee targeted and spent in myriad races, while the Democrats focused on about 50 battleground districts.
Nutting defended his leadership, saying that he helped secure campaign funding from the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which dumped approximately $800,000 into legislative races.
Rep. Alex Willette, of Mapleton, was elected as the Republican assistant minority House leader.
Election officials are still conducting recounts in tight legislative races, but Democrats are projected to hold 89 seats in the 151-member House when the new Legislature is sworn in Dec. 5. Republicans will have approximately 58 seats. Four unenrolled members have also won seats.