AUGUSTA — After failing to draw enough votes to censure Sen. Susan Collins earlier this year, the Kennebec County Republican Committee voted Tuesday to censure her at a special meeting to take that action.

The move came three months after the state Republican Committee failed by a 2-1 margin to censure Maine’s senior senator over her vote in February to convict former President Donald Trump during is his second impeachment trial, and after committees in Aroostook and Piscataquis counties also voted to censure Collins.

Helen Tutwiler, chairwoman of the Kennebec County Republicans, issued this statement following this week’s vote:

“(On Tuesday) Kennebec County Republicans overwhelming (sic) voted to censure Susan Collins for failing to listen to her constituents. We believe this vote (though only procedural) was an important step to re-engaging local voters who by and large are very hurt and frustrated with Senator Collins for not supporting even moderate Republican positions. It is our hope that Senator Collins will view this censure as a critique, not a criticism, and rejoin state Republicans in their efforts to unify the party. Either way, (the) vote was meant to send a clear message. Kennebec County Republicans are ‘America First’ Republicans who care about keeping local voters engaged and are willing to fight on their behalf, so please join us as we rebuild our party.”

At the first vote earlier this year, committee members voted 9-20 to censure Collins. On Tuesday, the vote was 49-18.

Dean Martin, state committeeman for the county Republican Party, said Thursday that following that first vote, he and his wife, Sondra, formed a Kennebec County populist caucus to build a grassroots movement to get people involved. A common theme they found was a wish to revisit the censure vote.

“We heard it all the time,” Dean Martin said, noting he had talked to hundreds of voters who felt they had been sold out. “We were talking to Republicans who were angry about it.”

Those recruitment efforts resulted in increasing committee membership by about two-thirds with people who identify as America-first populist Republicans.

Martin said their intent is not fighting Democrats, taking on Collins or calling people names. Instead, he said, they want to focus on what they call old-fashioned Republican values, which include putting America first, the Constitution and acknowledging government has a function, but people have rights.

“That’s kind of grown because it’s an appealing message,” Martin said. “I think we’re pretty clear as to what we engage in, and what we don’t.”

He said party members in Kennebec County are trying to become a politically responsive and viable party that can focus on key matters, other than specialty issues that are being pushed.

“We don’t believe America is a fundamentally racist nation,” Martin said. “We believe that people would like to do the right thing. I know I certainly would.”

Collins’ spokeswoman, Annie Clark, said Thursday the senator is gratified by the support she continues to receive from the Maine Republican Party, which rejected its own censure motion.

“She also appreciates the strong grassroots support she has all over the state, as is indicated by the fact that she carried 85% of Maine’s communities in last fall’s election, including Kennebec County, which she won by more than 16 points,” Clark said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speak to the media Thursday afternoon after President Biden announced a bipartisan deal at the White House on infrastructure after meeting with Republican and Democratic senators. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Roger Katz, an Augusta lawyer who served as a Republican state senator representing part of Kennebec County until 2018, said Thursday he had noted a shift in the party.

“This vote is so disrespectful to a senator who defines what it means to be a thoughtful Maine Republican,” Katz said. “Although I am sure Sen. Collins will take the high road, this censure is a slap in the face to her, who as recently as today (Thursday) was a key Republican negotiator on a bipartisan infrastructure plan that will provide a big shot in the arm to Maine.”

Katz said activists within the party seem to be intent on turning off more and more people, to the point those who would be left would be QAnon conspiracy theorists.

In November, Collins handily defeated Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, in a contest that was the second most expensive Senate race in the national election cycle. While Collins won votes in traditionally Republican parts of Maine, she also won votes in areas that also voted for Joe Biden over then-President Trump.

Because Collins is now in the first year of her fifth and maybe final term as senator, it is not clear the vote will have much impact on her. But two political scientists in Maine said the move may signal a shift among the state’s Republicans.

“There’s been talk that her popularity has declined recently, which is true,” said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine. “But the decline in popularity wasn’t among Republicans. It was among some unenrolled voters, and maybe even some Democrats who had voted for Collins in the past and been supportive of her, but were turned off by her vote on tax cuts or the Kavanaugh nomination.”

Brewer was referring to Collins’s support early in Trump’s term of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which permanently cut taxes on corporate profits, investment income and estates and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, then a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, to fill the seat being vacated by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kavanaugh’s confirmation was marked by allegations of sexual assault that were heard in a supplemental hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Brewer said the vote signals change to the Republican Party from the local through the national level.

“The Republican Party increasingly has become the party of Trump,” Brewer said. “His grasp on the party, even though he’s out of office and unpopular among a majority of Americans. He remains popular among Republicans, and his grip on the party is just as strong, if not stronger, today than it was when he was in office last year.”

Censures by GOP committees of Republican elected officials is most often of someone who has had the audacity, in their view, to point out some flaw in Trump, criticize something he did or in some other way attack him.

That is an indication of where the party is ahead of the upcoming midterm elections and the next presidential race, whether or not Trump runs again.

James Melcher, professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the move by the Kennebec County Republican Committee is more significant than the other, earlier county committee votes, because those counties are more conservative and the move was not unexpected.

“Party activists that are part of committees like that, especially leaders, tend to be farther from the political middle than regular rank-and-file voters,” Melcher said. “But I don’t doubt that there are some regular, rank-and-file conservative voters that feel the same way, and it’s easier for them to make the statement now because (Collins) isn’t up for election for another five years.”

A move like this is a sign of division in the party, he said, and could signal some primary challenges in upcoming races.

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