AUGUSTA — Maine Republicans hope to put a period of internal turmoil behind them when they elect a new state party leader this weekend.
The Republican state committee meets Saturday in Augusta to choose between two candidates for the party chairmanship: Rich Cebra, who’s completed four years as state representative from Naples, and Beth O’Connor of Berwick, who lost her bid for a second House term this month.
The winner will replace Charlie Webster, who was credited with engineering sweeping Republican gains in 2010, but later led a party tarnished by unproven voter fraud charges, weakened by a rift between party factions and set back by big losses in State House, U.S. Senate and congressional races in this fall’s elections.
Campaigning has been intense in the days leading up to Saturday’s chairmanship vote, said state committee member Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, a Cebra supporter who’s been getting an average of four or five calls per day on behalf of the candidates.
The election features a party mainstreamer in Cebra and longtime Ron Paul supporter in O’Connor.
But Berardelli and other party activists say the race is more complicated than a runoff to decide whether the party is controlled by Ron Paul followers or more traditional Republican forces.
“We’re looking for a leader who’s going to bring the various factions together,” Berardelli said.
Matt McDonald of Belfast, a “liberty activist” who went to the Republican national convention as a Paul delegate but lost his seat when the party awarded half of Maine’s delegates to Mitt Romney, is urging committee members to support O’Connor, although he will not be on the state committee soon enough to vote.
But McDonald said that all liberty activists won’t necessarily flock to O’Connor’s side, just as all establishment Republicans aren’t a slam dunk for Cebra. If there’s one unifying factor among the committee members, it’s the belief that “it’s time for Charlie Webster to move on,” McDonald said.
O’Connor plays down her longtime support of Ron Paul and reached out to all factions of the party, including so-called mainstreamers, tea party members and Paul supporters. Her willingness to listen is what makes her the best candidate, said O’Connor, who has chaired Maine Taxpayers United, which pushed for lower taxes.
“I think I will be a good leader because I have a lot of patience,” O’Connor said.
“There are a lot of ideological differences” within the party, she acknowledged. “I think we have to put aside those differences and work together.”
Cebra, contacted by email, wrote: “Out of respect for the state committee, the intraparty nature of the issue, and the overall party process, I don’t believe it would be appropriate for me to comment at this time.” Cebra said he would comment after Saturday’s vote.
His website says Cebra was a member of the 2008 Maine Republican Platform Committee, is a former member of the Maine Republican State Committee and was elected in 2008 as the Cumberland County Republican Committee chairman.
He has also picked up an endorsement from one of Maine’s most prominent Republicans, Gov. Paul LePage.
“Rich has a commitment to the grass roots, 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. I hope you will join me in supporting him,” said a letter from the governor to committee members.
Candidates mentioned for vice chair include Stavros Mendros of Lewiston, a Ron Paul supporter, and Traci Gauthier, who’s been executive director of the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce in Penobscot County.