PORTLAND — Plagued by infighting and deep ideological divisions, state Republican parties from Alaska to Maine are mired in dysfunction. Several state Republican leaders have been forced out or resigned in recent months, and many state Republican parties face financial problems and skeptical national leaders.
Democrats are not immune to such problems, but the conflicts on the Republican side highlight the tug of war over the party’s future as national leaders work to improve the party’s brand. At the same time, the Republican dysfunction raises questions about the GOP’s ability to coordinate political activities in key battleground states ahead of next year’s midterm congressional elections.
“There’s been a lot of division and disharmony in the Republican Party,” newly elected Maine Republican Chairman Rick Bennett told The Associated Press.
National Republican officials say help is on the way.
The Republican National Committee announced Wednesday that it has hired a dozen state directors to work closely with state parties, the first major step in Republican Chairman Reince Priebus’ plan to erase the long-standing political advantage Democrats enjoy in some states.
Maine Republicans elected Bennett last weekend following the sudden resignations of the state party’s top two officials. The former state Senate president inherited significant operating deficits and continued divisions between the party’s moderate and libertarian factions, just as high-profile campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate are beginning to ramp up.
Maine Republicans are not alone.
The Illinois state Republican chairman resigned in May after party moderates clashed with social conservatives over the chairman’s support for gay marriage. The Alaska Republican Party is on its third chairman this year; party activists ousted the first two over fundraising concerns. The Minnesota GOP also has cycled through chairmen and long has been troubled by financial issues.
And state parties in Nevada and Iowa are largely controlled by members of the Republicans’ libertarian wing, a group that’s known for criticizing the very same Republican establishment leaders they’re supposed to be cooperating with heading into the 2014 campaign season. Problems have been lingering for much of the past year.
In Wyoming – where Republicans dominate the Legislature while holding the governor’s office, all statewide offices and all three U.S. Senate and House seats – major Republican rifts also are emerging. Liz Cheney’s just-announced campaign to unseat popular U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi has divided Republicans, as has an investigation of the state school superintendent, a Republican, by the Legislature and governor.
“The job of a state party is to attack Democrats and build an infrastructure that helps elect more Republicans to state and federal office,” said Ryan Williams, an aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign. Williams, who worked closely with state parties during last year’s campaign, said some “were so dysfunctional, mismanaged and crippled by infighting that national Republicans had to work around them and set up shadow organizations to build our ground game.”
Republicans note that Democratic state parties also have faced dysfunction in recent months.
Alabama’s state party has struggled to pay its bills and faced eviction earlier in the year, while Georgia’s Democratic Party chairman resigned last month after being reprimanded by the state Supreme Court.
For Republicans in Maine and elsewhere, there are signs of improvement as more experienced political leaders take over for enthusiastic newcomers who have, in some cases, struggled with fundraising and logistics required to coordinate statewide political organizations.
The Republican National Committee is working to strengthen the state operations as well.
Priebus on Wednesday announced the addition of state-level directors in 12 states: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Their tasks include working with state parties to coordinate campaign efforts, planning GOP events across their states and collecting voter data, according to the RNC, which has more than 125 staffers already spread across the states, with many more hires expected by the end of the year.
“We’re building the most expansive field program the GOP has ever seen, and we’re doing it earlier than ever before,” Priebus said. “Our state directors will play key roles in building a permanent field operation to be successful in elections this year, in 2014, in 2016 and beyond.”
The first wave of hires is focused where the party faces high-profile elections in 2013 and 2014. Both Virginia and New Jersey feature gubernatorial contests this fall. And with the U.S. Senate majority at stake, Republicans are eyeing 2014 pickup opportunities in Montana, West Virginia and Louisiana.
In some states where new directors have yet to be hired, acute problems remain.
In Iowa, for example, the state GOP apparatus has become a reflection of the party’s bitterly divided factions. Led by followers of libertarian-minded Ron Paul, the state party organization has quarreled with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and disputed his strategy for state government and party affairs.
The stakes are high in Iowa, where the GOP has an opportunity to win the U.S. Senate seat long occupied by Democrat Tom Harkin, who is not seeking re-election.
In Minnesota, Republicans have been salivating to unseat two Democratic incumbents, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken. But Republicans there are at their weakest political point in more than 30 years. They hold no major offices, are in the minority of both legislative chambers and haven’t won a statewide election since Tim Pawlenty secured a second term as governor in 2006. Their candidate for Senate in 2012 mustered a bare 30 percent of the vote.
The Minnesota GOP has endured leadership shake-ups. Strife between old-guard members and Paul adherents lingers. And the GOP is struggling to get out from under a mountain of debt.
In Maine, Republicans are working to retain the governor’s seat, although Gov. Paul LePage is expected to face a challenging re-election in a state that overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama. Republican Sen. Susan Collins also faces re-election next year, although a serious challenger has yet to emerge.
“The Republican Party in Maine – and certainly in other states – is going through a period of redefinition,” Bennett said. “I think people are ready to move beyond that and to find common ground within the party.”