PORTLAND — After Maine’s Ron Paul delegation was denied seats at the Republican National Convention in August, supporters of the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman’s presidential campaign had no other choice but to go home.
“I think the federal government, they’re not fixable,” said Pete Harring of Auburn, founder of the Maine tea party movement and a Paul delegate at the convention. “We need to take care of our own backyards.”
Though members of the “liberty movement” haven’t been out front for higher-profile federal candidates here, there’s been a focused effort to boost candidates in legislative and local races, combining elements of the leftover Paul network here with new supporters.
While many in the movement praise some of those unique candidates and the movement’s energy, some wonder whether that energy can be harnessed for future political success.
‘WE GOT PUSHED AROUND’
After Paul supporters took over the state Republican convention in May, they successfully voted in 20 of 24 Maine delegates to the national convention.
But supporters of Mitt Romney, now the Republican nominee for the presidency, challenged the 20 Paul delegates, saying rules were violated at the state convention. Party leadership put forward a compromise that would split the 20 delegates between Romney and Paul, but Paul supporters rejected it.
Challenges in Tampa, Fla., leading up to and during the convention went nowhere.
“I was at the convention and I saw what happened,” said Siobhan Kumm of Waterville, a Paul supporter and frequent legislative campaign volunteer. “The delegates did everything they could — from staying on the floor, from reading a speech into a microphone that had been turned off.”
“We got pushed around,” Kumm said. “Going back to the grass roots showed we weren’t going to be pushed around anymore.”
In June, Paul supporters registered Defense of Liberty, or Dolpac, a state political action committee, and launched fundraising efforts in Maine.
Chaired by Eric Brakey, Paul’s state director in the presidential campaign and a Paul delegate, Dolpac aims to get liberty-minded candidates into the Maine Legislature and endorse legislation that promotes libertarian ideals.
“Beginning at the grass roots is kind of a time-honored entree,” said Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “If you’re thinking in terms of developing constituencies and developing an identity for your movement and a more institutionalized base, that could be a good move. It’s too early to say.”
With nearly $58,000 in contributions, Dolpac has endorsed 17 legislative candidates, including six first-term incumbents and seven challengers in Portland, South Portland and Falmouth. They’ve made nearly $6,000 in contributions to many of those candidates and endorsed and donated to two municipal council candidates, in Hallowell and Old Orchard Beach.
Their success won’t be measured just this year, the group says: They’re committing to building a grass-roots network.
“You’re building the bench for future federal races,” Brakey said. “We want to get that going right now. We want to really make a change in the state government.”
ENDORSING FRESH FACES
Many of the candidates Dolpac has endorsed are young fiscal hawks who don’t much care for what they see as the Republican Party’s misguided focus on social issues.
“I’m very encouraged with the younger people coming in,” Harring said. “I’m realizing that the Republican population is very old.”
John Logan Jones, a 26-year-old Air Force veteran running for a House seat in Falmouth, may be one of the movement’s best chances for a legislative gain. He said he was struck by Paul’s anti-war message while he served.
“When I was in the Air Force, I was watching the (2008 presidential) debates,” he said. “Congressman Paul was the only person telling the truth about the wars.”
Jones has been endorsed by Paul and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, which he says means he’s getting broad support from different types of Republicans. He’s running against two-term state Rep. Mary Nelson, a Democrat who won re-election in 2010 by just 92 votes.
He’s the only candidate without legislative experience getting support from the Liberty for All super political action committee, which has given him $3,200, according to state records. The Sunlight Foundation has reported the group was funded almost entirely by “a 21-year-old Ron Paul supporter and run by a 24-year-old political consultant.”
Jones said his campaign message is about improving Maine’s business climate and preventing “brain drain” — the flight of Maine’s young, educated people to more affluent areas. It’s a pretty traditional Republican message, until the conversation shifts.
“Social issues have gotten fiscally conservative people to not vote for fiscally conservative candidates,” he said. “I’m not interested in regulating people’s personal lives.”
Kevin Casey, a 32-year-old Republican running for House in Portland’s ultra-liberal West End, falls into that same class. He’s running a shoestring campaign — state records show he’s raised less than $4,000, with a maximum $350 contribution from Dolpac.
With two liberal non-incumbents in his race, some in the movement think he could win, come Tuesday. Casey’s running with three other Republican liberty-backed candidates in Portland, two on the edge of the city’s peninsula.
He’s been publicly supporting same-sex marriage because it “molds well with the message of liberty.” He said that message has been resonating with Portlanders who never would dream of voting Republican.
But even while he’s stumping on ultra-conservative items, like getting rid of state income and sales taxes, he tries not to mention the “R” word on the trail.
“When they hear the word ‘Republican,’ they automatically have an image in their mind,” Casey said. “It’s not necessarily a good image.”
KEEPING THE SEATS THEY HAVE
Perhaps most crucial for the movement is maintaining what they have.
“If we can hold on to some key seats and also win some victories and pick up some new seats with liberty candidates, that’ll be a win,” said R. Kenneth Lindell of Frankfort, chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, whose state PAC has given $2,000 in small donations to candidates this cycle.
“We’re particularly interested in 2014 and having a really strong ground game and really organizing for Gov. LePage,” he continued. “That requires two things: keeping the liberty movement in the Republican Party and getting the establishment Republicans who haven’t exactly embraced us to do so.”
The six first-term Dolpac-backed legislators — state Reps. Aaron Libby of North Waterboro, Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, Heather Sirocki of Scarborough, Beth O’Connor of Berwick, Ellie Espling of New Gloucester and David Johnson of Eddington — all rode to their seats in 2010, a watershed year for Republicans in Maine.
Brakey called Libby “the Ron Paul of Maine,” and many see his seat as a crucial one for the movement to maintain.
There’s a notable omission from Dolpac’s list of endorsements — state Rep. Ryan Harmon, R-Palermo, one of 11 lawmakers to endorse Paul’s presidential candidacy earlier this year.
In an email on the eve of the Maine Republican Convention, Harmon urged fellow Paul supporters to switch to Romney, who by then had emerged nationally as the presumptive presidential nominee, for party unity.
“Every group that endorses somebody needs to be careful when they endorse somebody,” Harmon said, praising Dolpac’s involvement and slate of endorsed candidates. “A lot of people were upset at the endorsement I made, before the convention, of Mitt Romney.”
Brakey said though he hopes Harmon wins and continues supporting the liberty movement in the Legislature, there were hard feelings about his early Romney endorsement.
“I was upset when he came out with that endorsement,” Brakey said. “I thought he was on the wrong side of that, and a lot of people in the movement thought he was on the wrong side of that.”
NOT ENERGIZED BY ROMNEY
Most in the liberty movement aren’t energized by Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Charlie Summers. Many, including Harring, are too scornful of the national convention to say they’ll vote for Romney over President Obama.
Harring said he’s not sure what he’ll do in that race.
“It’s going to be very hard for me to pull that lever for Romney, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Lindell, the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus chair, says those in the movement should fall in line for Romney.
“You don’t have to go rah-rah and sign wave,” Lindell said. “But if you want to be taken seriously as a Republican activist, you have to go out and support the Republican nominee.”
Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen said many of the party’s hard feelings with the movement have been mended since problems were exacerbated in the summer. “With the influx of new people and new ideas, there was bound to be tension — and there was,” he said.
“There were slights on both sides, but the leaders of that movement have been working very closely with us,” he said, citing the work of Brakey and David Boyer, Dolpac’s executive director. “We’re all aligned with the same goal of getting Republicans elected.”
Jones, the Falmouth House candidate, sees it that way as well, saying the local Republican structure has been good to him: “I am a Republican candidate and I agree with much of what the Republican Party believes in,” he said. “If we prove we can win races, the party just wants to win.”
But Schmidt, the USM political scientist, said libertarians’ history has shown it’s often tough to unite them under one banner.
“Big-‘D’ Democrats and big-‘R’ Republicans are labels that people identify with. ‘Libertarian’ refers to a social movement,” he said. “Libertarians are notoriously hard to organize.”
Harring, who helped organize Maine’s tea party movement and has moved into the liberty movement, said it’s only a matter of time before change happens.
“Obviously, with what we have accomplished — the tea party and the liberty movement — we have gotten the numbers so we can’t be ignored.
“We don’t have the numbers to gain control,” Harring continued. Then he paused.
Staff Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 621-5632 or at: [email protected]