AUGUSTA – Maine Republicans avoided a potentially divisive fight and elected Rich Cebra of Naples as the party’s new state chairman Saturday morning.
Cebra, who had been endorsed by Gov. Paul LePage, was elected unanimously at a closed state committee meeting after his only announced opponent, Beth O’Connor of Berwick, dropped her bid and was elected vice chair.
Cebra replaces controversial state chairman Charlie Webster, who helped engineer the party’s takeover of the Maine Legislature in the 2010 election, but then led Republicans through a tumultuous 2012 election that saw Democrats retake the Maine House and Senate.
At the same time, an open U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Republican Olympia Snowe was won by former Gov. Angus King, an independent who will caucus with Democrats. Also, both of Maine’s Democratic U.S. House members easily won re-election and President Obama won the state handily on his way to re-election.
After the election, Webster said he wouldn’t run for another term as chairman.
O’Connor said she came to realize that what the party needed most after this year’s results was unity, although she said she was confident that she had enough votes on the 81-member committee to win the chairmanship.
“The word that kept coming up was ‘unity,’ ” O’Connor said of her thinking leading up to the state committee meeting. “Everything needs to be unified and I kept thinking I was being divisive just by running.”
Cebra, who is finishing up his fourth term in the House, was considered the moderate candidate to replace Webster, but the liberal Maine People’s Alliance said in a statement Saturday that his selection indicates the party is “doubling down on extremism.”
O’Connor is a backer of Ron Paul, whose presidential bid split the party at its state convention last spring.
Paul backers gained control of the chaotic convention and sent a slate of 20 Paul delegates to the party’s national convention in Florida. Supporters of the eventual nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said the delegate selection violated party rules and eventually 10 of the Maine delegate slots were awarded to Romney backers.
Cebra indicated that he doesn’t have any radical plans to reshape the party. He said it needs stronger grassroots organization and said he would support efforts to strengthen town and city Republican committees. That will make the county committees stronger, he said, and ultimately help the party statewide.
O’Connor said she and Cebra would work well together, although after the meeting, she said she would have offered an “energetic” chairmanship that would have focused on trying to recruit younger voters to the party.
Cebra and O’Connor weren’t the only ones in the room at the Augusta City Center who thought they had enough votes to be named party chair. Webster said after the meeting that he had commitments from at least 46 committee members if he changed his mind and decided to run again.
Webster said the main reason Republicans lost this year was that they were outspent by Democrats who engaged in character attacks against Republican candidates.
“I’m sad to see Maine go the way of New Jersey, because that’s where we are now,” he said of the campaign.
After the election, Webster alleged that voter fraud in some small towns tipped several state House races to Democrats. He said Saturday that he still hasn’t decided whether he will mail postcards to those he suspects of having voted improperly — if they registered using fake mailing addresses, the postcards would be returned as undeliverable.
Webster hasn’t provided any proof of improper voting and Saturday continued to refuse to say where the alleged fraudulent voting occurred. The Maine Secretary of State’s Office said it has received no complaints of voter fraud connected to this year’s election.
The ACLU of Maine and Brennan Center for Justice have asked the U.S. Justice Department to launch an inquiry into Webster’s actions, saying he could intimidate black voters because he said the alleged fraud involved voting by groups of blacks who were unfamiliar to residents of the towns where they voted.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: