It was a restless crowd at the Maine State Republican committee meeting Saturday in Augusta when grassroots activists in the party renounced the long-time party chairwoman Demi Kouzounas and voted by a wide margin to replace her with former Canaan state representative Joel Stetkis.
Stetkis won 57 votes compared to Kouzounas’ 25 in the final vote, with one member abstaining.
But the final result only tells part of the story.
The morning began with an eleventh hour effort to exclude one of the candidates, Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) based on the interpretation of a rule that “officials” cannot also serve in party leadership.
Anticipating this move, Sampson wrote Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) on Friday night informing him of her resignation as a legislator. Faulkingham was unable to pass the letter onto House Speaker Rep Rachel Talbot Ross (R-Portland) by the time of Saturday’s meeting. In a dramatic intervention, Sampson addressed the committee saying she considered the Republican party a “family” and would not willingly tear it apart. She then withdrew her candidacy and threw her support behind Stetkis.
Returning to her seat, she and the Stetkis hugged. The meeting recessed while state party officials conferred with Faulkingham by phone. The effort to exclude Sampson inflamed a party already dissatisfied with its leadership in the wake of disappointing election results in November.
Former Gov. Paul LePage, who failed to win a third term last year, was actively campaigning for Kouzounas in the run-up to today’s votes, multiple sources say. At least three sources told The Maine Wire, the former governor had urged them to get into line with party establishment.
But those instructions contrasted sharply with the mood at Saturday’s meeting which could be called revolutionary.
Both Stetkis and Sampson went into the meeting with considerable support from activists behind them. Sampson told The Maine Wire she had pledges for at least 39 votes. Bowdoin contractor Guy Lebida, also a candidate, made clear in his remarks the party badly needed change. In withdrawing his own candidacy, he challenged Kouzounas to do the same. Like Sampson, he urged support for Stetkis.
Originally drawn to politics by the Tea Party movement, Stetkis spoke of Ronald Reagan’s warning that one day the liberties we take for granted will be challenged and that now is the time to “fight to regain our freedoms, to start going on offense, and to build a party machine,” and referenced his “two decades in the trenches helping Republicans win.” As the chair was transferred from Kouzounas to Stetkis, the victor kept his remarks short: “it’s time to get to work,” he said, “we have elections to win.”
In the weeks preceding today’s vote, various activists and elected officials around the state publicly endorsed Stetkis on social media. Sampson too enjoyed support among the grassroots that quickly shifted to Stetkis in solidarity with the message of change.
The new chairman faces an uphill battles as Republicans are the minority in both houses of the legislature which has so far been “cooperating” with Democrat Governor Janet Mills, according to Maine Public. No stranger to campaigns, Stetkis worked with candidates in Aroostook, Waldo and Washington counties last fall to flip a half dozen seats from Democrat to Republican.
Kouzounas had just been in California at a meeting of the Republican National Committee in which it re-elected chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, whom she had supported. On Saturday, though, Maine flipped that trend and overthrew its state party establishment. The test now is whether that energy will carry over to efforts to rebuild the party in advance of 2024 elections.