After two raucous and divisive conventions, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett is promoting solidarity this time around.
Four years ago, tea party activists and conservatives at the Republican state convention replaced the platform with one calling for sealing the borders and a return to “Austrian economics.” Two years later, Ron Paul libertarians staged a complete takeover, throwing the convention into disarray and further highlighting divisions in the party.
Bennett, who’s made it his mission to put salve on wounds, said his goal is for a drama-free event this week compared to the last convention, which he described as an “unmitigated disaster.”
“There’s a lot of really positive energy in the party and that will be on display during this convention, in contrast to what was on display during the 2012,” he said.
The convention this Friday and Saturday at the Cross Center in Bangor will feature addresses by 2014 presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, along with Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Paul Le-Page. Congressional candidates in the 1st and 2nd Districts also will address the faithful.
The Maine Republican Party will aim to put its best foot forward. Unity is the theme of the convention: “United for Jobs, United for Freedom, United for Maine.”
Bennett said his goal has been to ensure that the voices of all factions of the Republican Party are heard and that they understand there’s room under the tent for all of them.
But there are still many hurt feelings.
Beth Wallinga, a state committeewoman, said some conservatives, libertarians and tea party activists remain disillusioned with the direction of the party. “There are important ideas at stake and the big tent thing doesn’t always work,” said Wallinga.
Likewise, moderate Republicans who represent the traditional party base in New England are uncomfortable with the party’s shift to the right.
“The party has to stand for something and the principles it stands for should not be captured by an extreme wing,” said Peter Mills, former lawmaker and candidate for governor. He said the party should be focused more on streamlining government and reducing spending and debt than on social issues.
Bennett said he decided to ask libertarian Rand Paul to speak. “He represents a very important part of the Republican mix. He has a lot of fans in Maine,” he said.
In 2012, supporters of Ron Paul for president took over and elected a majority slate supporting the former Texas congressman to the national convention, stripping Republican nominee Mitt Romney of delegates. But some of them left the Republican Party, feeling they were mistreated by the party establishment.
Republican voters switching to independents and deflated conservatives and libertarians have led to a lack of energy in the party this year, Wallinga said.
Bennett, however, sees reasons for optimism. He said he sees enthusiasm building as the party has candidates in all legislative districts for the first time in years. The party is excited about tax cuts, the reduction in pension debt and efforts by Le-Page to fight welfare fraud.
The lack of contentious county caucuses leads Bennett to believe that the party is united behind LePage’s re-election bid and an effort to restore GOP majorities in the Legislature.
He said his goal is to get people excited without any unexpected drama.