July 25, 2013

In many states, GOP divided

Challenges awaiting new chairman Rick Bennett not unique to Maine

Steve Peoples / Associated Press

PORTLAND — Plagued by infighting and deep ideological divisions, state Republican parties from Alaska to Maine are mired in dysfunction. Several state Republican leaders have been forced out or resigned in recent months, and many state GOP organizations face financial problems and skeptical national leaders.

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Rick Bennett

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Democrats are not immune to such problems, but the conflicts on the Republican side highlight the tug of war over the GOP’s future as national leaders working to improve the party’s brand. At the same time, the Republican dysfunction raises questions about the GOP’s ability to coordinate political activities in battleground states ahead of next year’s midterm congressional elections.

“There’s been a lot of division and disharmony in the Republican Party,” newly elected Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett told The Associated Press.

National GOP officials say help is on the way.

The Republican National Committee announced Wednesday that it has hired a dozen state directors to work closely with state parties, the first major step in GOP Chairman Reince Priebus’ plan to erase the long-standing political advantage Democrats enjoy in some states.

Maine Republicans elected Bennett last weekend following the sudden resignations of the state GOP’s top two officials. The former state Senate president inherited significant operating deficits and continued divisions between the party’s moderate and libertarian factions, just as high-profile campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate are beginning to ramp up.

Maine Republicans are not alone.

The Illinois state GOP chairman resigned in May after party moderates clashed with social conservatives over the chairman’s support for gay marriage. The Alaska Republican Party is on its third chairman this year; party activists ousted the first two over fundraising concerns. The Minnesota GOP also has cycled through chairmen and long has been troubled by financial issues.

And state parties in Nevada and Iowa are largely controlled by members of the GOP’s libertarian wing, a group that’s known for criticizing the very same Republican establishment leaders they’re supposed to be cooperating with heading into the 2014 campaign season. Problems have been lingering for much of the past year.

In Wyoming — where Republicans dominate the Legislature while holding the governor’s office, all statewide offices and all three U.S. Senate and House seats — major GOP rifts also are emerging. Liz Cheney’s just-announced campaign to unseat popular U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi has divided Republicans, as has an investigation of the state school superintendent, a Republican, by the Legislature and governor.

“The job of a state party is to attack Democrats and build an infrastructure that helps elect more Republicans to state and federal office,” said Ryan Williams, an aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 GOP presidential campaign. Williams, who worked closely with state parties during last year’s campaign, said some “were so dysfunctional, mismanaged and crippled by infighting that national Republicans had to work around them and set up shadow organizations to build our ground game.”

Republicans note that Democratic state parties also have faced dysfunction in recent months.

Alabama’s state party has struggled to pay its bills and faced eviction earlier in the year, while Georgia’s Democratic Party chairman resigned last month after being reprimanded by the state Supreme Court.

For Republicans in Maine and elsewhere, there are signs of improvement as more experienced political leaders take over for enthusiastic newcomers who have, in some cases, struggled with fundraising and logistics required to coordinate statewide political organizations.

The Republican National Committee is working to strengthen the state operations as well.

Priebus on Wednesday announced the addition of state-level directors in 12 states: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

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