WASHINGTON — A leader of the renegade “Maine delegates,” who clashed publicly with party officials at last summer’s Republican National Convention, may vie later this month for an even bigger megaphone within the party: the position of national Republican chairman.
Mark Willis, who is one of Maine’s three representatives to the Republican National Committee, acknowledges it would be a long shot for him to win election as party chairman during the RNC’s winter meeting later this month. Willis still needs another state’s endorsement to even get on the ballot.
But Willis’ challenge of sitting RNC chairman Reince Priebus is, in many ways, a clear sign that the small and boisterous libertarian wing of the Republican Party that backed Ron Paul for president is still clawing for greater recognition in a deeply divided party. And Willis hopes his candidacy, even if unsuccessful, will further that conversation.
“He (Priebus) seems to have the votes locked up but I don’t think any candidate should run unopposed, especially after what happened at the convention and in the November elections,” said Willis. “Someone from the grassroots needs to get on the ballot and stand before that body and explain to them what has happened over the last six months.”
Republicans from all 50 states will gather in Charlotte, N.C., to elect a new chairman on Jan. 25. To be eligible, a candidate must receive endorsements from the majority of committee members representing at least three states. So far, Willis has received commitments from just Maine and Nevada.
Willis said he had hoped that another high-profile individual would step up to run. But he agreed to take on the challenger role after being contacted by fellow Mainer and former pro-Paul delegate Bryan Daugherty, of Bangor. Daugherty has been helping coordinate a “Step Down Now” campaign against Priebus. The people behind that effort are now working to get a third state’s delegation to endorse Willis.
To be sure, Willis would be an unlikely Republican chairman.
While three of the four previous RNC chairs have served as either governor or lieutenant governor, Willis has never held a high-profile elective office. He and his wife, Violet, live with their children on a farm in Dennysville, a rural town in Washington County. A veteran, he now works as an application security manager for corporations.
Willis and other libertarian-minded Paul supporters organized a takeover of the Maine Republican convention last year. They now control many of the seats on the Maine State Republican Committee.
Willis, like many others in that group, are still angry over the treatment of Maine delegates who supported Paul at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Following weeks of internal strife within the Maine Republican Party, RNC officials removed 10 elected Maine delegates who backed Paul and replaced them with Mitt Romney supporters. The reasoning: Maine’s delegate-selection process was riddled with procedural errors and illegal votes.
Paul supporters, in turn, accused the Romney campaign of rigging the RNC process to block the libertarian Texas congressman from receiving enough states to earn a primetime speaking role.
The dispute spilled into the convention hall, which several times echoed with chants of “Seat Maine Now!” and “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” Willis led the group off of the convention floor in protest. And later, the Maine delegates were joined by other libertarian-minded Republicans from around the country angry about the treatment of Paul supporters and rule changes they claim weaken the role of grassroots activists.
Several weeks after the November election, Priebus announced that he planned to seek another term in the chairman’s seat. Priebus also he said had the backing of 150 of the 168 committee members, well in excess of the 85 votes he would need to win re-election.
“Together we are going to make the case to every American, from coast to coast, that the Republican Party is their party and is the best choice for the future of our great nation and the principles it was founded on,” Priebus said in a video announcing his re-election campaign.
But others have called for Priebus to step aside following the loss of the White House and seats in both chambers of Congress.
“If that’s the hook they want to hang their hat on, I can understand why Mark Willis and others are frustrated,” said former RNC chairman Michael Steele, a vocal critic of the current leadership.
As Priebus’ predecessor, Steele was a bombastic and high-profile chairman. His tenure included dramatic Republican gains in Congress. But Steele, the party’s first African-American chairman, was also controversial and left the RNC deeply in debt.
Steele said Friday that it appeared that Priebus and his supporters had already “baked the cake” on the chairman’s re-election. He said November’s losses underscore the need for fundamental change.
“This is not the leadership team that the committee is going to need to talk to the gay and lesbian Republicans or talk to black and Hispanic Republicans, let alone those independent or conservative Democrats who would not look at the party otherwise,” said Steele, who is now a political commentator.
An RNC official referred questions about Priebus’ re-election bid to his campaign, which did not return requests for comment on Friday.
For his part, Willis credited Priebus for his organizational and fundraising skills after inheriting a party that was $24 million in debt. But he accused the current leadership of consolidating power at the top.
If nominated, Willis said he will call for eliminating the rules adopted at the national convention that he believes disenfranchise grassroots party members. He also wants to return some authority to state committees when it comes to deciding how and when to hold party caucuses or primaries.
“We need to energize the grassroots and rank and file of the party,” he said. “I really want to bring a spirit of inclusiveness to the party, if elected.”
Kevin Miller — 317-6256
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC