This is the first of a several part series looking at the state of the Republican Party in every state in the country. This writer will start in the New England area with a look at the states of Maine and Massachusetts.
In January 2019, Republicans chose a new state party chair in Demi Kouzunas in Maine. This occurred after a difficult 2018 midterm election where Democrat Janet Mills was elected governor. The GOP appeared fractured after a long-time state legislator dropped out of the race for party chair claiming that a “cult of personality” had overtaken the party. That was a not-so-subtle jab at former Governor Paul LePage.
When LePage was elected in 2010, he sought to wrest control of the party and largely succeeded. His designated candidate of choice for party chair was Kouzunas. For certain, LePage had managed something in 2010 that no Republican had done in Maine in 40 years- take the Governor’s seat and legislature. In the final four years of LePage’s tenure as Governor, he regularly clashed with several state senate Republicans. He blamed these senators for their 2018 electoral losses. This was aimed mainly at former state senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason who dropped out of the race to become party chair the night before the vote.
For her part, Kouzunas is endorsing a more confrontational GOP in Maine in the coming year. She has endorsed, for example, what she calls daily “Trump-like tweets” and said that the GOP has played “too nice” with Democrats. To show the path the Maine GOP is taking, Waterville mayor Nick Isgro narrowly won a recall effort after tweeting out “Eat it, Hogg” directed at gun control activist David Hogg, the pompadoured face of gun control. Isgro was elected Vice-Chair with no opposition.
The shadow of Paul LePage looms heavy over the Maine GOP. In some respects, LePage was Trump before there was Trump. He showed that a populist and confrontational message could translate into electoral victory. And even though Democrats may have made gains in Maine in 2018, they have a tough job ahead of them. Not only must they protect freshman Democrat congressman from the Second District- Jared Golden- they must also work to oust Republican Senator Susan Collins and work to defeat Trump in 2020. In 2016, Trump lost the state by about 22,000 votes and one wonders where Libertarian Party Gary Johnson’s votes (38,000) would have gone had he not been on the ballot in a state with a libertarian streak in it. Geographically, Trump took a big swath of the state, not the population centers along the coast.
It should also be mentioned that LePage is teasing the public and political pundits suggesting that he may challenge Democratic governor Janet Mills come 2022. This is setting up for interesting political times in 2020 and beyond. It should also be mentioned that Maine uses a ranked-choice voting system. GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin, who was endorsed by Trump, won more first place votes by 3,000 but then lost after ranked-choice tabulation. In 2016, under regular voting, Poliquin won by 9.6% in a district Trump won by 10.3% over Hillary Clinton.
There is also the Senate seat of Susan Collins up for grabs in 2020. Although she may be a pain in the neck for conservatives, keeping this seat in GOP hands is important toward keeping the majority in the Senate. There have been rumors that she may seek the governor’s seat in 2022 which would put her on a collision course with LePage should he decide to run again. Collins remains quite popular in her state and among the GOP apparatus there.
In Massachusetts, although having a popular Republican Governor in Charlie Baker, there is dissension at the state level. Fifteen former losing state legislature candidates let it be known that they failed to receive expected financial backing from the state GOP in 2018. This led to the election of a new reform-minded chair in Jim Lyons. He ran on a promise to look into allegations of questionable spending by the previous chair that involved $164,000 for parking garage privileges and over $102,000 in meals. This occurred under the leadership of Kirsten Hughes who was Baker’s preferred party chair.
The new party leadership is also complaining that they have been shut out of the online donor mailing list which is hosted by Salesforce. There are questions of who controls the list- the state GOP or Governor Baker? The Baker team claims that they too have shut off from the list for some reason.
Assuming Lyons can correct these situations, it is also apparent that he is making moves to protect President Trump against a primary challenge on the part of former governor Bill Weld. The party GOP voted to award presidential delegates on a winner-take-all basis come 2020. Stuart Stevens, an adviser to Weld, claims the move is to weaken Weld in the primary and at the GOP convention. Lyons retorted that it is silly the change is attributable to this since Trump is expected, according to polls, to easily win the Massachusetts primary in landslide proportions.
Besides shoring up solidarity behind Trump, Lyons said he is dedicated to preserving the seats of what few Republicans are in the legislature while trying to pick off some vulnerable Democrats at the state level come 2020. Trump winning Massachusetts in 2020 is not a realistic priority. As for Weld, Lyons has been on the attack saying “Even Benedict Arnold switched allegiances less often,” a not-so-veiled reference to Weld.
Next in the series: New Hampshire and Vermont