With the 2020 elections fast approaching, it’s long past time for Republicans in Augusta to begin their preparations.

This isn’t just about recruiting candidates, raising money and hiring staff, either: Republicans in the Legislature and those considering running should have a discussion about what, exactly, they stand for as they begin to make their case to Maine voters. Much as it might be tempting, Republicans cannot merely define themselves in opposition to Janet Mills, or even to the more radical members of her party. That’s an easy solution, sure, but voters need to know more from Republicans before trusting them with their vote.

This isn’t an easy conversation to have, not least because it hasn’t really happened for the past eight years. When your party controls the executive branch, the governor or the president gets to set much of the agenda – and legislative candidates are often defined solely in terms of their loyalty to the party’s leader. We see that now at the federal level, where Republicans in Congress frequently get caught up in having to respond to every controversial remark or proposal from President Trump. It was equally true during Paul LePage’s tenure as governor: Regardless of how they felt about him individually, Republican candidates across the state became associated with LePage in the minds of voters.

Now, Maine Republicans have a chance to reinvent themselves. That was tough during the last election, when much of the debate continued to revolve around LePage’s legacy, but it may be more possible next year. If they want to do that, though, Maine Republicans – especially those running for the Legislature – will need to sit down and decide what they actually stand for. It might seem as if this is duplicate of the hard work put into crafting the party platform, but it’s not: Party platforms are usually broad and address both federal and state issues.

What legislative Republicans ought to be working on now is translating parts of that platform into actual policy. They need to highlight a list of legislation introduced last session –whether it ended up passing or not – that most of the caucus in the House and Senate supported. They also need to craft legislation for the upcoming session to highlight certain issues that could garner widespread support – among the public, if not in Augusta.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should: This was the approach Republicans took 10 years ago en route to retaking the majority in 2010. While LePage and the gubernatorial election got most of the attention, legislative leaders didn’t sit around and wait for the primary to end so the nominee could take the reins of policymaking. Instead, they proposed their own agenda to the Maine people, one that they could move forward with regardless of who won the nomination. That approach worked extraordinarily well, allowing the new Republican majority in Augusta to immediately move forward with enacting their proposals.

A few years ago, Democrats attempted something similar when they proposed their own alternative to Gov. LePage’s budget proposal – or at least, an outline of one. They had a fancy website, they had meetings and they campaigned on many of the ideas. The effort had its shortcomings, however – not just in the content of their proposals, but in the political strategy as well.

The first problem with it was that it was crafted in response to LePage’s proposal, which had virtually no chance of being enacted as presented. By reacting to the governor’s budget, Democrats were highlighting their disagreements with his ideas, rather than presenting their proposals as a forward-looking plan for the future. It was a mistake to focus their ideas on the budget to begin with, especially the final budget proposal from the administration as they headed out the door. That kept Democrats in the Legislature from crafting legislation to fit their agenda; instead, it remained more a set of vague talking points. A cynic might presume that was the point of the exercise, but regardless, the Republican Party shouldn’t imitate it.

Instead, by being specific with real, detailed proposals that actually get introduced as legislation, Republicans can show Mainers that they’re serious about governing, not just floating talking points for palm cards. They can present common-sense policies, both as alternatives to the Democrats’ more extreme proposals and as positive ideas that stand on their own.

That will allow Republicans (and, hopefully, the rest of the state) to move forward as the elections approach, looking ahead rather than continuing to rehash old battles.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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