AUGUSTA — Diminished ranks of Maine House Republicans looked to a fresh face to lead them as they resume the role of minority party.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, who was just elected to his second term in the House, was nominated Wednesday to become the House Republican leader. His nomination followed nine floor speeches marked by regret, frustration and soul-searching for a party that briefly held the majority but suffered devastating election losses last week.
Fredette promised a new approach for Republicans trying to protect policy gains over the past two years and set a path to retake the majority in the Legislature.
Frededette, 48, vowed to grow the ranks of the party, who some members believe is alienating key portions of the electorate despite a sound economic message. He defeated Sangerville Rep. Paul Davis, a former Senate minority leader; and outgoing House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, of Oakland.
Fredette said the Maine Republican party had “suffered a great defeat” last week but in its “darkest hour” must seek to broaden its message.
“We must be ready to embrace more women, and we must be ready to embrace more young people, and we must be ready to embrace more leadership, not less,” he said.
The nomination speeches were laden with frustration about the loss of at least 20 seats on Election Day. Republicans acknowledged that Democrats brought out more voters while also appealing to women, minorities and young people.
The remarks about widening the party’s appeal to more voters were juxtaposed by controversy stirred by outgoing Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster. Webster, in an unedited interview with WSCH 6, resurrected his suspicions about voting irregularities by alleging that “dozens” of unknown “black people” had voted in rural areas, thus tipping the scales for Democratic candidates. Webster, who vowed to conduct his own investigation into the matter, was blasted in equal measure by Democrats and Republicans.
Fredette was touted for his ability to work with Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee and as a young, emerging leader willing to work with Republican Gov. Paul LePage and with the incoming Democratic majority. Davis was considered a staunch supporter of LePage, who has shown little tolerance for dissent among Republicans, much less Democrats.
Rep. Lance Harvell, of Farmington, known for delivering thundering floor speeches laden with historical references, supported Fredette as a leader who could work with LePage, but not give in to the governor’s every wish. Absent that leader, Harvell said, the Republican ranks would be divided.
“We need a leader that is going to hold us together or we’re going to get rolled,” Harvell said. “Ken Fredette is the man.”
Harvell said Republicans had a “superior message” but that it had failed to connect with younger voters and women.
“We took a shellacking with the young and the women,” Harvell said. “If we continue this trend, we should pack up and go home.”
He added, “Democrats know that the population outside this building is conservative. They know it, but they govern differently.”
Lawmakers such as Harvell feared gridlock and a fractured Republican caucus if Davis was elected.
Davis had strong support, too, however, particularly among staunch LePage allies.
Burlington Rep. Beth Turner, speaking in support of Davis, said that the party’s accomplishments did not make it to the campaign trail.
“Somehow our message of success did not reach the people of Maine with clarity and conviction,” Turner said.
Davis also suggested he would have made it a priority to retain or grow the Republican majority.
“I thought this summer that we were going to lose some seats, but I never thought that we’d lose 25 percent,” Davis said during his speech to party members.
Republicans needed to focus on recruiting and supporting solid candidates, “not jockeying for leadership in the next race,” he said.
Nutting struck a somber tone in his speech to party members. The outgoing House Speaker’s leadership run was a late development that raised eyebrows among some Republican members who blamed him and other leaders for the election losses.
Specifically, members privately grumbled about the re-election strategy that focused too little on Republicans’ legislative accomplishments.
Rep. Alex Willette, of Mapleton, was elected as the Republican assistant minority House leader.
Election officials still are conducting recounts in tight legislative races, but Democrats are projected to hold 89 seats in the 151-member House when the new Legislature is sworn in Dec. 5. Republicans will have about 58 seats. Four unenrolled members also have won seats.