From Maine to Washington, D.C., Republican Party officials, operatives, and activists are fighting a mild civil war to determine who will lead the party following mostly disastrous performances in the 2022 midterm elections.
Whether it’s the messy fight over the next U.S. Speaker of the House, to campaigns for various committee leadership posts playing out on television broadcasts and social media, the Republican Party finds itself at a crossroads. In most cases, the choice seems to be between the status quo establishment and outside challengers from the right.
In Washington, D.C., former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)’s bid to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker of House has been derailed by threats from the more conservative members of his caucus.
Although McCarthy has already moved his office into the Speaker’s Suite, as of Tuesday it was not certain whether he would have the necessary Republican votes to remain in that office space. But even if his ambitions stall out, no clear alternative has emerged from the conservative wing of the caucus.
In both the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Maine Republican Party, incumbent leaders are reckoning with conservative opposition, too. In both races, incumbent leaders who have gone largely unchallenged for several terms face challengers from the right, buoyed by widespread dismay over last November’s underperformance.
Maine Republican Party chair Demi Kouzounas, a dentist from Saco, is seeking her fourth term as chair of the Maine Republican Party. When the state committee assembles on Jan. 28 to make a decision, she’ll have to convince voting members that she’s a better choice than three other contenders.
Former Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis (R-Canaan) and Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) have both declared their intention to seek the office of party chair. As has Guy Lebida, a Bowdoin resident who has twice run unsuccessfully for a seat in the State Legislature.
In a statement made after the election, Kouzounas has laid blame for Republican losses in Maine on events beyond the control of a state party operation, likely a nod to the role abortion played in Maine’s gubernatorial election. She hasn’t commented publicly on her desire to seek another term.
In an email to Maine Republicans last month, Stetkis said the party needed to focus on winning races at the state and local level in order to build up the ranks. He also said the next party chair needed to focus on building out a competent early voting and mail-in voting operation.
“It is imperative that we build a professional and effective Republican turnout operation, especially for early voting,” Stetkis said.
“There is a lot to learn from our colleagues in Florida and California, where Republicans have superior early voting operations,” he said.
Sampson first rose to prominence in Maine politics as the first home school advocate ever appointed to a state board of education during former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s first term. She subsequently won a seat in the State Legislature in 2016. Throughout that time, she’s been a fierce advocate for educational reform and parental rights.
In recent weeks, Sampson has circulated an online petition among Republican activists with her pitch for taking the job.
“If Republicans want to be taken seriously, our leadership needs to stop embracing a culture of losing,” she said.
Like Stetkis, she emphasized focusing on local elections in order to build out a deeper bench for bigger races, and she also said building out a better early voting operation would be a core part of the job.
“To win, we need to think outside of Election Day,” she said. “We must develop winning strategies for absentee and early voting and replicate success when we find it.”
A message left with Lebida was not returned.
All four candidates will plead their case next week before the committee members who will ultimately decide which of them will lead the party for the next two years.
Stephanie Anderson, the chair of the Cumberland County Republican Committee, said the CCRC is hosting a virtual forum with the potential candidates on Jan. 11 at 6:30pm.
The meeting will only be open to voting members of the state committee, and all four candidates have committed to attend.
Although there is widespread discontent among Republican insiders with the Maine GOP’s performance last November, Kouzounas is likely safe. Most GOP operatives expect the dissenting committee members to split their votes between Stetkis and Sampson, handing the incumbent another term.
In the race for RNC chair, a strikingly similar dynamic is playing out. Ronna McDaniel, like Kouzounas, is vying for her fourth term. And, after a disappointing midterm election, she’s also facing challengers from the conservative side of the party.
Firebrand California attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon and pillow-magnate-turned-political-activist Mike Lindell have both been campaigning hard to replace McDaniel, with Dhillon receiving the backing of many prominent media figures in the conservative movement, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
But the Maine’s delegation to the RNC plans to throw their support behind McDaniel.
Maine RNC Committeeman Josh Tardy, Committeewoman Ellie Espling, and Kouzounas have all said they plan to back McDaniels, who is facing her first contested race for the position since she was first tapped for the job by former President Donald Trump.
“The clamor for change is always healthy,” Tardy said in a phone interview. But he added that a losing season isn’t always a sign that a leadership change is needed, noting that Maine’s big races have gotten more attention under McDaniel than they might have otherwise.
“McDaniel has been very fair to Maine,” he said.
In this case, being fair to Maine means allocating significant national resources to Republican races in the state.
McDaniel’s critics have focused on what they say are extravagant expenses the committee made on luxury travel and private jets. A post to Red State, a conservative blog, excoriated McDaniel’s stewardship of the RNC’s financial resources, but McDaniel allies have praised her ability to race significant sums of cash for Republican operations — a key qualification for the job.
In a statement to the Maine Wire, Dhillon said the RNC has repeatedly fallen short of its promises to Republican voters.
“[T]he RNC sorely needs change,” said Dhillon. “Maine Republican voters are demanding it, national political figures are demanding it, and pretty much everyone in the Republican ecosystem demands change.”
“I hope that my friends in Maine will hear their own voters, as RNC leaders have done in many other states, and vote for change,” she said.