WASHINGTON – A Maine representative to the Republican National Committee is accusing national party leaders of running a smear campaign to oust him from the committee, even as he wages his own longshot bid to become the national party's next chairman.
Five months ago, Mark Willis lost his delegate seat at the Republican National Convention in Tampa because of his outspoken support for presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Now, other Republican National Committee members question whether Willis is eligible to represent Maine on the committee -- let alone run for RNC chairman -- because he was listed as Paul's running mate on Maine's official list of declared write-in candidates last November.
Failure to support the party's presidential nominee is grounds for removal from the committee under RNC rules.
But Willis said he had no hand in his name appearing as a write-in candidate for vice president -- a claim confirmed by the man who filed the original paperwork -- and Willis insisted he supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney after the convention.
Willis believes it's no coincidence that the questions were raised a week before he hopes to challenge Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for the party's top position. Willis said he knows of two RNC members Priebus contacted about the issue.
"I think their tactics are desperate and are a cry for help," Willis said Friday. "And it only validates my campaign."
A representative for Priebus had not returned requests for comment Friday evening.
Willis has yet to secure the endorsement of a third state -- Maine and Nevada have already endorsed him -- that would allow him to challenge Priebus. But this isn't his first run-in with national party leaders.
After a behind-the-scenes battle that spilled onto the convention floor last summer, Willis and nine other Maine delegates who supported Paul were denied seats and became the public face of the frustrated libertarian Republicans in Tampa.
Willis is still obviously bitter about that treatment.
His campaign for chairman criticizes Priebus for Republican losses in November and accuses him of surrounding himself with high-paid consultants and political insiders while weakening the voices of grassroots activists.
It appears that others in the party haven't forgotten Willis either, however.
California Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel reportedly sent an email to other RNC members this week questioning whether Willis broke the rules when his name appeared alongside Paul's as a write-in candidate in Maine, according to the news site The Daily Caller.
"I understand the ambition of a new member wanting to run for a high RNC office," Steel wrote, according to The Daily Caller report. "Moreover, debate is always valuable for the membership. But given the strange Maine ballot experience, Mark may want to find another time to consider a run for the party's top position after he has more experience in national politics."
Steel did not return a message left for him at his California law office on Friday.
Under RNC rules, the committee can "declare vacant" the seat of any member who refuses to support the Republican presidential or vice presidential nominee. An RNC official said Friday that for Willis to be challenged, an RNC member would have to make a motion during next week's meeting.
Patrick Eisenhart, an Augusta resident and longtime Paul supporter, said he filed the paperwork to list Paul and Willis as write-in candidates "to give voters more options."
Eisenhart, who serves on the executive committee of the Kennebec County Republicans, said in an interview that he never consulted Willis beforehand.
"It's just a shame that it is even an issue," said Eisenhart, who believes the entire affair is more fallout from the events in Tampa. "All I can think is that it is pathetic."
Willis' campaign is, by all accounts, a long shot.
RNC chairmen have typically held high-profile positions either in elective office -- such as governor or lieutenant governor -- or in party politics.
A former counterintelligence agent in the military, Willis holds a law degree and works as an applications security manager from his family's 20-acre farm in Dennysville.
His political involvement was largely at the local level before his election as a Maine representative to the national committee by fellow Paul supporters at the state Republican convention.
The Republican wing that embraced Paul's campaign is well-organized -- they control leadership positions in Maine, Nevada, Iowa and a number of other states.
Yet their numbers on the national committee are small compared to "establishment" Republicans.
To be elected RNC chairman requires 85 of the 168 national committee members, and Priebus has said he has already secured commitments from 150.
Willis acknowledges the long odds he faces, even if he secures an endorsement from a third state delegation. But the write-in issue appears to have stoked his frustrations even more.
"I have a chairmanship to win and I plan to push forward," Willis said. "These questions have been addressed head-on and they owe me an apology because they got it wrong."
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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