By Eric Russell
The Maine Republican Party's state committee will meet early next month to choose one of two former lawmakers as the party's next chairman. Its choice could prove crucial to Republicans' immediate future, in the wake of widespread defeats on Election Day.
The candidates are Beth O'Connor, a one-term state representative from Berwick who lost her re-election bid on Nov. 6, and Rich Cebra of Naples, who served four terms in the House so could not run again.
A third candidate, David Jones, dropped out recently, say members of the party.
O'Connor or Cebra will replace Charlie Webster, who has endured a sometimes-rocky two-year term.
Webster was credited for recruiting strong candidates and raising a lot of money for the 2010 elections, in which Gov. Paul LePage was elected and Republicans took control of the Maine House and Senate for the first time in four decades. But just two years later, Democrats took back both chambers.
Webster was criticized for leading a charge against illegal voting in 2011 but failing to uncover any, then for appearing to side with Mitt Romney during Maine's presidential caucuses in February.
And last week, in an interview with WCSH-TV, Webster sparked outrage when he alleged that groups of unknown black people showed up to vote in rural Maine towns on Election Day. He later apologized.
Webster announced shortly after Election Day that he would not seek another term as chairman, which is a paid position.
By all accounts, the race to succeed him will be close.
On the conservative website As Maine Goes, support appears evenly split between O'Connor and Cebra.
Many commenters on the site also advocate for Bruce Poliquin, who will likely lose his job as state treasurer shortly after the 126th Legislature convenes. But he is not running.
O'Connor is the fresher face. She has libertarian and tea party credentials and, perhaps more importantly, she supported Ron Paul for president, which should curry favor with new members of the party's state committee who were Paul supporters.
Cebra is more the establishment candidate and is known for his conservative social views. He has been outspoken against the Affordable Care Act and even introduced a bill in the last session that would have criminalized its implementation.
Cebra initially planned to run for state Senate but withdrew in April.
He already has one high-profile endorsement. LePage sent a letter recently to members of the state committee, encouraging Republicans to back Cebra as the next chairman.
"Rich has a commitment to the grassroots, an understanding of the legislative process, a core belief in small business which drives Maine's economy and he strongly supports the principles which unite us," LePage wrote.
Two years ago, on his way into office, LePage angered some Republicans by trying to exert influence on the party's leadership.
LePage wanted Jason Savage, who had been a colleague at Marden's Surplus & Salvage and worked on the governor's campaign, to have a role. Webster, who was elected chairman, didn't think that was necessary.
Savage formed a nonprofit advocacy group called Maine People Before Politics with LePage's leftover campaign money.
Dan Demerritt, a Republican operative and LePage's former communications director, said he thinks the governor should be involved in choosing the party's leadership.
"The governor is the leader of the party for all intents and purposes. He should look to cooperate and coordinate with party leadership whenever possible," Demerritt said. "That's called party building."
Demerritt said the party missed opportunities because of the strained relationship between LePage and Webster.
Republicans don't expect that dynamic to continue.
O'Connor said she had no problem with LePage endorsing Cebra. She said she talked to the governor about it and he told her that she would have his support if she were elected.
LePage said as much in his letter.
"Elections come and go. What remains are the issues that bind us together. Liberty, free enterprise, a government which governs least truly governs best," he wrote. "Our party's beliefs are larger than one man or woman, one elected official or party elder."
Cebra did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
O'Connor said the party must make fiscal issues a priority. She said some of Webster's actions have hurt the party but most of his comments have been taken out of context.
Her goal is to unite the party. "I feel that the party has been divided in so many factions and I know people from all of them," she said. "I want to be a peacemaker."
But O'Connor has a reputation as a straight-talker, too.
"Everyone knows I'm honest, sometimes brutally so," she said.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: