Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Maine Republican Party has 300 volunteers and 25 paid college students collecting signatures for a referendum on cutting the state’s income tax and changing the welfare system. As ballot drives go, that seems like a decent-sized campaign operation. But party chairman Rick Bennett isn’t sure if it will be enough to get the two-pronged initiative on the ballot in 2016.

“I can’t honestly say if we’ll make it or not,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a big effort. If we don’t make it in 2016, we’ll bring it back in 2017.”

The party’s big lift has been anticipated ever since it announced in September that it was combining its income tax cut initiative with a slate of changes to the state’s welfare system. The effort to collect over 62,000 signatures by Feb. 1 effectively required gathering 10,000 signatures a week during the holiday season. The campaign needed to clear procedural hurdles to even get the signature petitions printed, giving it barely enough time to get the petitions in the field in time for the all-important Election Day signature gathering blitz. Bennett said that the petitions were printed the day before the election and the party scrambled to distribute them to volunteers at polling places.

The petitions reached 135 polling places by Election Day, but the signature gatherer operation wasn’t fully in place. In some polling places like Lewiston, signature gathers for a referendum to legalize marijuana were also soliciting signatures for the Republican referendum. There are arguably better campaign synergies than welfare, income tax cuts and decriminalizing weed.

The party eventually deployed Gov. Paul LePage to solicit volunteers and by late November, Bennett told Maine Public Broadcasting that it had collected about 10,000 signatures. He conceded then that getting the issue on the ballot would be difficult. On Tuesday, Bennett said he couldn’t provide updated numbers, saying the party had collected “tens of thousands” of signatures.