GOP at a crossroads in Maine, U.S.

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After the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump this week, the Republican Party is coming under scrutiny in a new and even disorienting way.

As the struggle within the party unfolds in Washington, Maine Republicans, too, are asking some fundamental questions. While there’s been no violence to date in Maine, some recent statements and protests have left party veterans scratching their heads.

Three past and present GOP officeholders recently discussed what they’ve observed so far, and what they anticipate for the future.

Roger Katz

Roger Katz, who served as a state senator from Augusta from 2010-2018, and whose father, Bennett, held the same seat earlier, sounded bemused when asked about a Waldo County Republican Committee resolution. It sought to prevent Katz, and former Senate President Kevin Raye, from Washington County, from being Republican candidates again because they endorsed Democrat Joe Biden last September.

“That was beyond the pale,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, a former state party chair. “… It will have no effect at all.” Although he didn’t vote for Biden, he said “there’s no binding contract just because there’s an R in front of your name.”

Less widely noticed was a “resolution of protest” by the all-Republican Piscataquis County Commissioners, adopted Jan. 13, which denounced Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in familiar language with some novel twists.

It falsely claimed “the history of pandemics shows that face coverings and lockdowns only worsen and lengthen the time of the virus’ track,” and that “face coverings, while not preventing the virus, cause respiratory disease and pneumonia, with far worse devastation to the populace than the virus itself.”

These recent broadsides have left some observers, such as former state Sen. Peter Mills, wondering whether the party can survive in its traditional form.

Mills represented rural Somerset County from 1994-2008, including one House term, and ran in the Republican primary for governor in 2006 and 2010. Both his father and grandfather served as GOP state senators, with the original Sumner Peter Mills first elected to the House from Stonington in 1902.

Yet Mills changed his party registration to Democrat in 2018, for what he says were entirely pragmatic reasons. His sister, Janet, was running in a seven-way primary, and the moderate wing she occupied was being strongly contested by Sanford’s Adam Cote.

“We were all out there, every day, especially in the northern counties,” Mills said. Yet he also seems to have no regrets about ending a century-old family tradition.

“There are always tensions in the party, but I don’t see how you can resolve this one,” he said. “For anyone who grew up with Dwight Eisenhower, and wants someone like Mitt Romney today, where do they go?

As for theories that the Trump base could simply collapse, Mills doesn’t see it.

“The business and professional wing isn’t big enough to win elections,” he said. “If you try to purge the extremists like Ted Cruz, there aren’t enough votes left.”

While the party could move back to its traditional center, he’s skeptical. “I don’t know if I’ll be alive to see it, and I intend to live to be 100,” Mills, now 77 and executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said.

Peter Mills

Katz has studied the election returns, and he too questions a return to the center, for somewhat different reasons.

Although Trump was defeated and Democrats assumed the U.S. Senate majority while holding the House, “that wasn’t true of the down-ballot races,” he said, noting Republicans made gains in statehouses, including Maine, substantially narrowing the Democrats’ House majority.

“If it had been a drubbing, it might have been different, but it was a split decision,” Katz said. He said he doesn’t see any substantial policy or ideological shifts “at least until there’s a more decisive election result.”

Bennett returned to the state Senate after an 18-year absence, after representing Oxford County from 1994-2002, including a year as Senate president when Republicans shared power with Democrats. His four-year stint as state party chair came while Paul LePage was governor.

Bennett said we may be asking the wrong questions.

“Party realignment has been going on for a while,” he said. “I remember when Democrats represented working people in unions, and Republicans were small business owners and professionals.”

Although demographics have played a part in Maine voting shifts, as jobs disappear in rural areas and wealthy retirees move up the coast, there’s more to it than that, Bennett said: “You have a situation where neither party is trusted by a lot of ordinary people.”

The lack of trust is affecting all major institutions, not just the government, he said.

“When I was campaigning last fall,” Bennett said, “I heard at least as much about the abuse of power by the Central Maine Power Co. as I did about government overreach.”

Many voters, he said, “have lost confidence in our institutions, and think they’ve been hijacked by people trying to look out for themselves rather than serve the public interest.”

He said the Tea Party movement is an example of what happens to “a genuinely grassroots movement that just got taken over and co-opted by the Koch brothers.”

The answer, in his view, isn’t as much about expecting parties to change overnight as for voters to start thinking for themselves.

“If you find a party no longer represents you, you can find one that does,” Bennett said. “Join with your friends and see what can be done.”

Rick Bennett

When he was party chair, one of his pet peeves was getting calls from reporters asking whether he’d denounce statements made by GOP officeholders – or, conversely, calls from Republicans asking him to go after Democrats who’d said things they considered outrageous.

“I have a lot of humility about calling other people to judgment,” Bennett said. “We start to believe that other people are morally inferior, and that’s a dangerous boat to be on.”

Katz views the Washington scene with considerable concern, especially Republicans’ treatment of incendiary statements by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Georgia, after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to discipline her and the full House then voted to remove her committee assignments.

Katz recalld that when a Maine Republican senator was found to have made anti-Muslim posts when Mike Thibodeau was Senate president, the caucus quietly agreed to end his committee chairmanship. “I remember there was sadness and some angst,” he said, “but no real disagreement about what had to be done.”

Mills doesn’t think the future is entirely bleak and agrees with Katz it may take more elections to sort things out.

Mills supported Biden and likes what he’s seen so far. But he also took out a subscription to the Boston Globe so he can read about Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, whose approval ratings are among the highest in any state.

“There’s a New England style of governance that maybe they could try to replicate elsewhere,” Mills said.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues since 1984 as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.