March 6, 2012

MIKE TIPPING: Snowe's announcement takes some heat off state GOP chairman

Mike Tipping

Olympia Snowe's announcement last week that she would end her campaign for re-election came as a shock to her constituents in Maine and to people across the nation.

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THOROUGH CHECK: Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster said Monday he’s uncovered more than 200 cases of election fraud in the state. He blamed “liberal interest groups” for it. “The majority of these students, they’ve been exploited by groups that know better,” Webster said in a telephone interview. “MoveOn.org, ACORN — these liberal groups — for them, it’s about winning elections.”

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Apparently, she didn't even tell her own staff and close colleagues until just hours before her public statement.

Her decision was particularly off-putting for Republicans, who had counted on Snowe to hold the seat and put them one vote closer to a majority in the Senate. She left no obvious GOP successor to contest the race in Maine and a very short time frame to find a suitable candidate and get them on the ballot.

Instead of a single, strong candidate, Republican support is split among five or six lesser-known contenders, with different party factions supporting each of them.

According to most political analysts, Republicans are now the underdogs to win a race that was considered a sure thing only a few days ago.

This electoral trouble, however, may have been good news for the career of one Republican: State Party Chairman Charlie Webster.

Before Snowe's announcement, Webster had been facing a mutiny in the ranks after a series of political blunders, and members of the tea party base were openly calling for his resignation. Now, his position seems more secure as the Republicans seek to pull together in order to face a difficult new political reality.

Webster's troubles began not long after the Republican victories in the 2010 election. He initially was praised for his work recruiting and training candidates for the state Legislature, but things soon became more difficult as Gov. Paul LePage and his allies in the House and Senate took office.

According to multiple people familiar with the situation, LePage and Webster butted heads repeatedly over staffing decisions and the role of the GOP in supporting the governor's agenda.

Webster also received some blame last November for first advocating for the passage of a law banning same-day voter registration and then running an unsuccessful campaign to protect it from a People's Veto referendum. He became, in many ways, the face of the law and his unfounded claims about voter fraud may have played a role in the law's defeat in November by a wide margin -- a result that was seen as a rebuke to Webster and Republicans broadly.

Other aspects of Webster's tenure also have been controversial, including some of his hiring decisions and even grammatical and spelling errors in state GOP news releases.

Opposition to Webster hit a tipping point last month, when the Maine Republican caucuses became something of a national joke. There was confusion around totals and timing of the results of the presidential preference straw poll, and Webster didn't help things by revealing to the media that he had failed to count some results because they had ended up in his spam folder.

The confusion caused new questions about Webster's job performance, especially among supporters of Ron Paul, who felt Webster had slighted their candidate intentionally. Many of those supporters are the same grassroots activists who backed LePage in 2010.

Webster didn't help his case among this group when he labeled them "conspiracy theorists" in an interview with Politico and called them "wingnuts" in a radio interview on WVOM.

After these statements, members of the party's dominant tea party wing began advocating for Webster's ouster and quietly organizing among members of the Republican State Committee to remove him from his position. This would not be easy to achieve: The replacement of a party chairman requires a two-thirds vote by the committee.

Others were less quiet. Dan Billings, LePage's chief legal counsel, took to the Internet to blast Webster in a series of posts on the conservative message board As Maine Goes. He called out Webster for not supporting the governor's agenda and wrote that his radio comments were "insulting."

Movement toward change within the party, however, mostly came to a halt with Snowe's announcement. Members of the GOP State Committee traded emails burying the hatchet and agreed that their focus should be on the 2012 election rather than their internecine dispute.

Some, however, are continuing their campaign against Webster. Carter Jones, a well-known tea party activist made a post on Facebook on Sunday announcing that he had met with the governor over the weekend, that they both agreed Webster should resign and that LePage would attend the state committee meeting on Saturday to push for Webster's ouster.

LePage has not, at the time of this writing, made a public comment about the subject.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com

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