Race for Next Maine Republican Chair Heats Up

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Unlike the Scorpions, neither you nor I have to walk down to Gorky Park to listen to the winds of change. Based on a series of conversations I’ve had with activists and elected office holders within the universe of the Maine Republican Party in the last 48 hours, those winds will probably soon be blowing at the state party’s headquarters 9 Higgins soon. On January 28th, delegates to the state committee will be voting for a new chairperson.

While the results of last month’s mid-term election strongly indicate the Republicans in Maine need new leadership, incumbent chair Demi Kouzounas, a dentist from Saco, is standing for re-election. I know this because when I tried to contact her, one of her aides sent me a copy of the statement she made at the last state committee meeting. A post-election statement the Maine GOP issued after the November election took no responsibility for failing to capture the Blaine House, either congressional seat, or either House of the State Legislature and instead passed the blame for this dismal performance on national trends beyond their control.

If the election results themselves didn’t scream for change, that statement did. Then I got the run-around in my efforts to speak directly with Kouzounas with various of her aides telegraphing to my editor that I might get the chance to speak with her next week if I play my cards right. My Russian friends have an expression for such thinking: the fish rots from the head.

But there is good news. Two strong contenders have thrown their hats in the ring to challenge the incumbent and bring the kind of fresh approach circumstances within our control suggest we need.

Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) and Joel Stetkis of Canaan, a former four-term state legislator, both said publicly at a meeting in York County on Wednesday they would be running as well. Each offers a different face, but the two share a focus on the grassroots and the urgency for reform of the state party’s capabilities when it comes to aiding candidates and persuading more Mainers to become Republicans.

An athletics coach and homeschooler, Sampson became involved with politics after former Governor Paul LePage appointed her to the State Board of Education, making her the first homeschooler in the nation to serve on such a public education advisory commission. Then she won four consecutive terms to the state House of Representatives where she made a name for herself as advocate for reform.

Now, Sampson sees a need for a state party that works shoulder to shoulder with a new set of candidates running for offices all levels from school boards to federal positions.

“We need to bring people into the fold,” she told me. “The trouble with our party efforts to date is that they have been lackluster and that is why we need new energy and inspiration to get people involved and then support them when they commit.”

Small businessman and long-time public servant Joel Stetkis agrees on the essential need for change.

“If you don’t see the job getting done, it’s always been my instinct to get in there and make it happen,” he explained to me when I asked why he’s running.

An Air Force veteran, and member of various local boards before running for the state House, Stetkis sees the problem the Maine Republican Party has faced recently is a “top-down” orientation. That certainly tracks with spending on the last election, where exponentially more resources flowed to the governor’s and Second District congressional race than anywhere else.

It was the Tea Party that first inspired Stetkis to engage at the state level, and he was an early supporter of LePage in 2009. What appealed to him then, he says, was the focus on the “forgotten man.” In addition to his own political races, Stetkis set up a Political Action Committee to help other candidates around the state.

Bad as November was for Republicans, we flipped three seats in Aroostook and one each in Waldo and Washington counties, he points out. If elected, he says he would prioritize a mentoring program for new candidates and office holders.

Both Sampson and Stetkis cite the state party’s failure to adapt to the realities of early voting as a fundamental one. Because of what Stetkis calls the top-down mentality the party has adopted, there is a sense that top of the ticket candidates will handle turnout preparations for everyone else.

“We know elections are coming, and we know there will be early voting, why aren’t we getting on top of this?” Sampson asks.

To be fair to Kouzounas, the state party has never been strong at any moment in my lifetime. Being chair is not an enviable task.

“I’d rather drink broken glass,” one activist told me when I asked her if she would seek the job. The chairperson must not only lead the state committee, which, like any committee in the history of committees, can be diverse and unruly. He or she must also set a vision, entice people outside the circle of trust to consider joining, and work with parallel structures in a common direction.

In the weeks ahead, Sampson and Stetkis will be making their cases to the county committees who send their electors to Augusta. Not a single local or county activist with whom I spoke was happy with the status quo. After the holidays, tuned in Republicans will be hearing a new song. The only question that remains is whose.

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