November 7, 2010

He's 'the man' behind GOP's election gains

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

Charlie Webster wanted Republicans to run better campaigns when he took over as state party chairman two years ago.

Charles Webster
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Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, is credited by many for re-energizing the party just two years after Democrats had posted significant wins in 2008.

The Associated Press

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Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he knew people were “angry” two years ago.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He wanted to raise more money to pay for staff.

He thought Republicans could win the 2010 governor's race, even as Democrats were celebrating the historic election of President Obama.

But most notably, Webster recognized something about voters then that many people came to realize just this year.

"I think people are really angry," he told the Kennebec Journal in January 2009. "That's the only word I can use. They are angry, but they don't know who to blame."

Last week the blame clearly fell on Democrats.

Voters elected Republican Paul LePage governor and ousted 16 incumbent House Democrats and three senators, giving the GOP control of the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time since 1966.

Republicans control the House 77-73-1 and the Senate 20-14-1, according to unofficial election results; and while three recounts in the House and one in the Senate are expected, they will not tip the balance.

As Republicans celebrated in the State House Hall of Flags last week, many of them credited Webster with engineering the comeback.

Just a few years ago, the party was questioning its own future in Maine.

It's been a 36-year dry spell in the House for Republicans and 14 years of near-absolute Democratic rule in the Senate. The last Republican governor, John McKernan, left office in January 1995.

For the part-time chairman who continues to run Webster Heating Co. in Farmington, it was the culmination of two years of strategy sessions, fundraisers and personally knocking on some 5,000 doors.

He brought with him a new motto for the party: "Working people vote Republican."

While introducing Webster at the State House celebration last week, outgoing House Republican Leader Josh Tardy described him simply as "the man."

"The Republican Party recognized if it wanted to be successful in November that we had to be the party of the working class," he said. "The person that had a big part of that message, ... he's the man, the chairman, Charlie Webster."

Last week, Webster said many key Republicans -- Sen. Kevin Raye, Tardy, party Executive Director Christie-Lee McNally -- played a role in turning around the party's fortunes. He knows they had the wind at their backs too, with national unrest, the tea party movement and a sluggish economy.

Republican candidates also benefited from money from national groups. The Republican State Leadership Committee, for example, spent nearly $400,000 on five Senate races, all of which went Republican.

Webster met personally with many of the legislative candidates, giving them advice on where their votes would come from and what issues they should address with voters. Chief among the issues were taxes and the cost of health insurance.

"Why we had success was, on the issues people are really concerned about, we're on the right side of and (Democrats) are not," he said. "They just became a little complacent and they overreached what they should have been doing."

In April 2007, things were not looking good for the Maine Republican Party.

Former Rep. Joe Bruno served as party chairman for a few months, then stepped down when he felt he was not included in decisions made by elected officials at the State House.

One longtime Republican described a fractured party that ran in three or four different directions at once.

Then came the fall of 2008, when 58 percent of Mainers voted for Obama, and Democrats dominated the state House and Senate races. The only Republican who did well that year was Sen. Susan Collins, who won re-election with 61 percent of the vote.

Webster ran for chairman on the heels of the 2008 vote with a plan to revive the party.

"Part of the problem was when you are unsuccessful for a long time, it's hard to get people to invest in you," he said.

A former Senate Republican leader, Webster called old friends to explain his vision -- and to ask for money.

He also seized an opportunity in the spring of 2009 when Democrats passed a tax overhaul that lowered the income tax, but expanded the sales tax to include more than 100 additional services. The plan also raised the meals-and-lodging tax, and the tax on car rentals in an effort to get tourists to carry more of the burden.

To Webster, the tax overhaul -- which was backed by only one Republican -- showed that Democrats were out of touch with most Mainers. The law, for instance, added taxes to car repairs, so Webster wrote letters to other small businesses warning them that Democrats might come after their businesses too.

He recalls talking with his wife about the law.

"I said I can't believe they are going to tax having your car repaired," he said. "Are they totally out of touch with what people want?"

He launched a people's veto petition drive, got the signatures and convinced voters to reject the law in June of this year.

Democrats who voted for it became prime targets. In some areas, Republican candidates also listed Democratic votes on gay marriage -- another law that was repealed by voters -- as more proof that their elected representatives weren't reflecting the wishes of their constituents.

Still, many felt the Maine House would be out of reach for Republicans this cycle, because of the Democrats' large 95-56 majority.

However, a coordinated effort that included Webster, Raye, Tardy and others led to major changes in the Legislature's make-up.

Gone are Democrats Sen. John Nutting of Leeds, Sen. Joe Perry of Bangor, Sen. Deb Simpson of Auburn, Rep. Lisa Miller of Somerville and Rep. Gary Connor of Kennebunk.

Raye, who was chosen Friday as Senate president, said Republicans took a "three-legged stool" approach with House, Senate and party leaders all working together.

"We had a very good relationship with the state party in terms of being energized," he said. "(Charlie's) been a strong and energetic chairman."

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com

 

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