'Tea party'-backed platform sails through Maine GOP convention

Maine is known for GOP moderates, but over the weekend, conservative activists succeeded in passing a platform that’s backed by tea party groups.

Joel Page/AP
Former Maine Republican Gov. John McKernan speaks on Saturday, during the second day of the Maine Republican State Convention in Portland, Maine.

Conservative activists backed by “tea party” groups have rejected the Maine Republican Party’s proposed platform, replacing it with a document praising the tea-party movement and calling for a number of potentially radical changes, such as the sealing of borders.

An overwhelming majority of the 1,800 delegates at the party’s state convention passed the conservative platform Saturday. The move surprised many in the Maine GOP, which has a half-century reputation for moderation. The state’s two Republican US senators – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – are both considered moderates, as is their predecessor, Bill Cohen, who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

“If you’re not a moderate, you don’t get elected in Maine,” says political consultant Chris Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “Any candidate who gets nominated is going to ignore that platform, or he or she is going to lose.”

The development in Maine coincides with one in Utah, where the tea-party movement ousted Sen. Robert Bennett (R) at the state’s GOP nominating convention Saturday. Although Senator Bennett is generally considered a conservative, tea partyers had targeted him largely because of his 2008 vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) for banks.

In Maine, the newly adopted GOP platform outlines various changes, although its ambiguous language leaves the meaning of many sections open to interpretation. There’s a call to restore “Constitutional Law as the basis for the judiciary,” to “reassert the principle that ‘Freedom of Religion’ does not mean ‘Freedom from Religion,’ ” to “return to the principles of Austrian Economics,” and to remove “obstacles created by government” to the private development of natural gas, oil, coal, and nuclear power.

Other parts are clearer: a rejection of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, elimination of the US Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, and a freeze and prohibition on stimulus spending. Healthcare is “not a right” but “a service” that can be addressed only by using “market based solutions.”

The wide acceptance of the platform at the convention surprised even its co-authors. “I had no inkling this would pass, and frankly we’d been told as much by people running the convention,” says co-author Steven Dyer, an evangelical youth pastor and vice chair of the Knox County Republican Committee, which sponsored the document. “They didn’t even make copies of it for the delegates. They just read it to them from the podium.”

Mr. Dyer says he and his co-authors aren’t members of the tea party, although some have attended such events. They were motivated by disappointment with the party’s “progressive” wing, which had “forgotten what it means to be a Republican,” he says.

He agrees that the document is vague in parts, but that was because they had expected it to be merely a draft to begin negotiations with less-conservative party members. To their amazement, it passed with the support of not only tea-party groups, evangelical Christians, and Ron Paul libertarians, but also a large number of presumably rank-and-file conventioneers.

State party chair Charles Webster denied that the platform represented a major change, saying it was just “more specific” than past platforms. “These are things that Republicans believe, especially working-class people,” he says. “If it had been really controversial, it wouldn’t have passed.”

It will help Republican candidates get elected, he says, even though Maine has been becoming increasingly Democratic in recent years.

Democrats currently control the governor’s mansion, both houses of the state Legislature, and both US House seats. Barack Obama won 15 of 16 counties in the 2008 election. Democratic control of the Portland City Council is threatened not by Republicans, but by Greens.

Seven Republicans, four Democrats, and two independents are running to replace Gov. John Baldacci, who is term-limited.

“If I was a Republican, I’d be a little nervous about this. And if I was a Democrat, I’d be cautiously optimistic,” says Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono. He thinks that parts of the platform will play poorly with the general electorate in the gubernatorial race.

Professor Potholm played down the significance of the new platform, saying that candidates and voters will simply ignore it. “The party’s moderate constituency hasn’t changed,” he says. “It’s a tempest in a teapot.”

But longtime Republican state legislator Peter Mills, a moderate gubernatorial candidate, says it’s a mistake to underestimate the sentiment that fuels the tea-party activists. “They’re very small, very vocal, and very intense, but they reflect a wider feeling of frustration, discontent, and lack of confidence in government,” he says. “The challenge is to be able to harness that anger and frustration and, once elected, convert it into significant change.”


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