TAMPA, Fla. — Maine Republicans are heading home deeply divided and barely on speaking terms after tensions flared this week in front of thousands of fellow party members and media from around the world.

But there should be plenty of talk in Waterville on Saturday when the Maine Republican Party’s State Committee meets in the wake of a dispute between Maine party stalwarts and Ron Paul supporters that played out at the Republican National Convention.

The decision by Republican National Committee members to unseat some delegates and alternates loyal to Paul at Mitt Romney’s nominating party both infuriated and energized libertarians within the Maine Republican Party. With self-described libertarians and constitutionalists holding nearly half of the State Committee seats, they plan to speak out against what they regard as unfair treatment of Paul supporters at the national convention — treatment they say began in Maine, continued in Tampa and is now coming back home to roost.

“It’s going to be very difficult this Saturday,” said Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the Aroostook County Republican Committee and one of the 10 Romney supporters chosen to fill the seats of the 10 displaced Paul delegates.

Gahagan in some ways has his feet in both factions of the modern Maine Republican Party that, working together, helped elect conservative Gov. Paul LePage and Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature in 2010. Although he’s a Romney supporter who has been active in Maine Republican politics for decades, he also considers himself to be libertarian minded.

Whether that coalition is splintering or simply experiencing growing pains could determine whether Republicans are able to maintain those historic gains in Maine, a state that prior to 2010 was regarded as solidly Democrat.

For their part, the Paul supporters who went to Tampa this week have said they aren’t going away.

“We are staying involved at the local level,” Brent Tweed, one of the leaders of the pro-Paul delegation, said after he and others walked out of the convention hall. “They have only energized our people.”

Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine, said there is no question that the issue is coming back home to Maine from Tampa. But Brewer said it is hard to say, so close to the dust-up, how it will affect Republican politics in Maine headed into a November election in which Democrats hope to wrest back control of the State House.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that the risk is present … at the moment with tensions very high and things still fresh,” Brewer said. “I generally tend to think that, by the time we get to November, that the implications won’t be as grave as they are right now.”

That’s because Brewer believes Paul’s supporters, tea party members and others frustrated with recent events will want to avoid the consequences of a divided party. The biggest, most immediate consequence, he said, would be Democrats in the Legislature being able to shut down LePage’s policy agency.

LePage’s decision to skip the national convention after the RNC unseated the 10 delegates appeared to give him an instant boost among the Paul supporters in Tampa, who thanked the Maine governor both publicly and in a press release.

But Brewer pointed out that the dispute in Maine between traditional Republicans and the newer wave of libertarians is playing out across the country. He foresees potentially much bigger, long-term implications for the party on the national stage.

“This is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party and what the Republican Party is all about going forward,” Brewer said. “I think this is just the latest in a series of battles of different factions within the GOP.”

That struggle was on full display in Tampa, despite RNC officials’ attempts to show a party unified behind Romney. Though it was only one of several causes of the disunion, the dispute of Maine’s delegates quickly became the most visible symbol and rallying cry for a largely youth-driven libertarian struggle for a toehold within the Grand Old Party.

“The Maine delegates,” as they became known, were the stars of a minor story line that managed to keep going for three days thanks to some vocal, highly visible sympathizers from Texas and the media’s appetite for anything unscripted amid the Republican National Convention’s stage shows.

The first sign that Maine’s skirmish with RNC officials might actually be something bigger was when chants of “Seat Maine Now!” filled the convention hall Tuesday. When those chants went unheeded, Maine’s Ron Paul delegates and more than 100 supporters marched around the perimeter walkway chanting, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” as the convention activities continued uninterrupted.

In a twist on the old saying’s meaning, the protesters were citing the experience of Maine’s Paul delegates as a warning about Republican leaders attempting to silence the voice of state delegations and grassroots groups who don’t support “establishment candidates.” The even bigger issue, marchers said, were rules changes approved at the convention that allow party leaders to make such power grabs. Among other things, the changes would allow RNC to overrule locally elected delegates.

By the end of the week, the debate that the “Ron Paul army” was pushing in Tampa — virtually all of it outside of the strictly controlled convention floor — was about the national fight for immediate recognition by and respect from the larger party. More than 100 libertarians held a press conference outside of the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday evening that featured speakers from Texas, Maine, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina and other states where Paul’s supporters felt slighted.

“Grassroots Republicans are essential to the health and unity of our party,” said Luis LaRotta of Texas. “We must all move forward to bring the party together. We are enthusiastic about removing Barack Obama from office, but we are concerned that the actions of some in the party leadership are jeopardizing our opportunity to get this done.”

Back in Maine, many of these same tensions and issues will likely be raised during Saturday’s State Committee meeting as well as for months to come.

Mike Wallace, a Paul delegate from Maine and State Senate candidate, said he hopes that the two sides can learn to work together.

“I don’t know what the end result is going to be,” Wallace said Thursday evening on the convention floor, “but I think it will work out.”

Wallace then joined the rest of the Paul delegates outside of the convention hall who were refusing to watch Romney’s address.

Kevin Miller — 317- 6256

[email protected]

 


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