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'Is This Our Party Anymore?' — Maine's Establishment Republicans Who Got Canceled

AP Photos by Robert F. Bukaty, Maine Public Illustration
Kevin Raye (left) and Roger Katz.

Former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye attended his first Republican convention in 1978 and didn’t miss one until 2016. Former state Sen. Roger Katz, also a lifelong Republican, remembers attending a parade for President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.

But in January, Raye and Katz “got canceled.”

Their peers in the Waldo County GOP ratified a resolution that banned Raye and Katz from running for public office as a member of the party.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Raye said in a recent phone interview.

Ironic because the modern Republican Party has vigorously framed so-called cancel culture — loosely defined as societal punishment or expulsion for voicing unpopular ideas — as an existential threat to the republic. In this case, Raye and Katz got canceled for announcing their support last fall for President Joe Biden.

Their decision turned out to be quite popular with 81 million Americans, although not with loyalists to Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

“Roger Katz and Kevin Raye, publicly and willfully allowed their personal opinions to support the Democrat Joe Biden for president in the 2020 election, thereby giving the impression that their support was a creditable decision for other Republicans to follow their belief,” the resolution said.

Said Katz, “I wasn’t aware that being a member of a political party made us take a loyalty oath, or require us to vote for every single candidate that the party puts forward.”

Apparently it does.

In the aftermath of Trump’s loss and the Jan. 6 insurrection his extremist backers attempted at the U.S. Capitol, there’s been a hardening of support and additional calls for fealty. While some top Republicans in Congress have condemned the president’s role in the Capitol riot, state parties and county committees like the Waldo County GOP remain defiant.

Last week the Oregon Republican Party passed a resolution condemning the 10 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives who voted to impeach Trump. It also described the Jan. 6 riot as a false flag operation akin to the 1933 Reichstag Fire, which Adolf Hitler blamed on communists and exploited to establish Nazi Germany.

The Arizona GOP took a similar step, condemning former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain for criticizing Trump, as well as Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who certified that state’s free and fair election results.

The Maine Republican Party has not gone that far, at least publicly, but the resolution by the Waldo County GOP — which had the distinct appearance of a model document for other county committees to adopt — and the state committee’s unwillingness to name Trump when it condemned the Jan. 6 attack suggest that grassroots activists in Maine remain very much in the former president’s corner.

Republican activists, as well as some elected to the Legislature, continue to promote the baseless claim that election was stolen. Others have suggested that the Jan. 6 riot was carried out by leftist agitators, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

More recently, nearly 70 Republican lawmakers and the Maine Republican Party came to the defense of Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin, who is on administrative leave amid an investigation of his social media posts promoting a stolen election and other conspiracy theories. Republicans described Democrats’ call to put Gauvin on leave as “ideological conformity” while the Maine GOP described it as “Democrat cancel culture.”

“The Republican committees have been completely remade in Donald Trump’s image,” Raye said. “The party has been almost completely replaced from what I recognize, or have ever known, as the Republican Party. Many of the people who were involved, and activists who worked in the trenches for years, are no longer even involved in the party.”

Raye said many have left because they’re uncomfortable that the party has so closely aligned itself with Trump, a figure with a policy agenda so malleable that the Republican National Committee last year declined to update its party platform and instead follow the former president’s policy whims.

Raye and Katz say those whims and the president’s conduct are destructive to the party.

“It’s my fear that if we remain the party of Donald Trump, and remain in his shadow, that we are condemning ourselves to minority status far into the future,” Katz said.

Tension between establishment Republicans and activists isn’t unique to now. Between 2010 and 2013, Republicans in Maine frequently clashed with a libertarian wing that ascended during President Barack Obama’s two terms. But that was arguably a more ideological clash.

The current split, according to Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant in Washington, D.C., is more serious because it pits what he described as the governing wing of the party against its populist wing.

“The populist faction is mainly the Tea Party movement of 2010 with a famous and inflammatory leader,” Ayers told NPR this week. “It’s the 21st century version of populism — anti-elite, anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-immigrant, anti-Wall Street. The populist faction is not going away, even if Donald Trump does.”

Ayers’ view is shared by other political observers who don’t foresee the Republicans abandoning the populist faction after mainlining its high energy for the past five years.

But Katz questions whether the approach is sustainable for a party whose standard bearer was recently ousted after a one-term presidency and whose views, while enthusiastically embraced by hardcore supporters, represent a minority view in the American public. He also doubts that ambitious political climbers in the party can harness an energy that only Trump seems able to generate.

In the meantime, Raye worries about additional defections in the party. Republicans who object to Trump’s conduct have been roundly shouted down by his supporters, or more recently, “canceled.”

Raye worries that longtime members will just drop out of the party.

“I haven’t taken that step,” he said. “I’m still assessing where the best place will be for those of us with centrist and center-right views to find a comfortable political home.”

Katz added, “There are a lot of conversations going on where people are asking, ‘Is this our party anymore? And what can we do about it?’”

PPP dustup previews 2022 gubernatorial race

This week’s kerfuffle over Gov. Janet Mills’ initial supplemental budget plan to tax forgivable coronavirus relief loans awarded through the Paycheck Protection Program had some serious 2022 gubernatorial race vibes.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, who has talked about challenging Mills since before he even left office in 2019, blasted his successor in a press statement. LePage’s political organization, Maine People Before Politics, also criticized the governor.

And J.P. Twist, the political director of the Republican Governors Association, the national group helping to elect GOP governors, highlighted a Bangor Daily News column by the head of a conservative advocacy group who also took Mills to task.

Regardless of the 2022 election implications — which may ultimately prove moot — the issue of taxing PPP loans is actually an interesting policy debate.

At its essence, the PPP loans were designed to encourage businesses to keep workers on the payroll while assisting with expenses during the pandemic. The loans replaced business income that would have been normally taxed if not for the pandemic. The federal government decided not to tax the loans as income as a way of providing an additional relief to businesses struggling to get through the pandemic. But unlike the federal government, states like Maine are constitutionally barred from running deficits to pay for that significant loss in tax revenue.

That was the dilemma for Mills, whose budget writers were confronting an estimated $100 million hole in the current budget if the state conformed to the federal tax code on PPP loans. Mills has since reversed course amid backlash from business organizations that have been typically friendly to her during her first two years in office. She has vowed to see whether her administration can use new federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the conformity.

That decision didn’t please the Maine Center for Economic Policy, which argues that conforming will provide a double benefit for businesses while people who received pandemic unemployment insurance will still pay taxes on their benefits.

CMP’s Beltway lobbyist

Central Maine Power’s statewide advocacy blitz for a controversial transmission project that’s expected to earn the company nearly $2 billion over the next 20 years is well documented.

But last year the company also made sure its voice was heard in the halls of Congress, as well as the federal agencies that can make sure the company’s coveted New England Clean Energy Connect project goes forward.

The company paid a lobbyist $240,000 in 2020, according to documents filed with the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. The disclosure shows that CMP sought to lobby Congress as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the transmission project.

In November the U.S. Army Corps granted the project a key permit that allowed CMP to begin executing project contracts worth $17 million, according to the company.

The Army Corps permit decision appeared to catch opponents of the project off guard.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the corridor, does not appear to have hired an outside lobbyist for the federal permitting process, but it did sue the corps seeking a review of the project’s environmental impact.

Natural gas companies Calpine and Vistra, which oppose the corridor and operate power plants in Westbrook and Veazie respectively, also hired D.C. lobbyists last year. However, disclosures from the companies’ lobbyists don’t highlight the CMP corridor or the Army Corps of Engineers as targets for advocacy.

Mega-donor boosts noncitizen ballot initiative

A ballot initiative that would bar noncitizens from voting in local elections has received a significant cash infusion from one of the country’s top Republican donors.

Last fall a new political committee called the Liberty Initiative Fund reported a $300,000 donation from Richard Uihlein. The committee spent the bulk of that money assisting in the signature-gathering effort to put the noncitizens voting proposal on the November ballot.

Uihlein and his wife Liz Uihlein were the fourth-ranked donors in federal elections, donating more than $68 million in 2020 according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The couple gave more than $40 million in 2018 and are known for bolstering far-right candidates, including former Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

The midwestern couple own the packaging company Uline. Richard Uihlein is a descendant of the founder of Schlitz beer.

It’s unclear whether Uihlein will contribute more to the Maine ballot initiative led by state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican from Winter Harbor. Earlier this month Faulkingham filed a lawsuit seeking to upend a state election law provision requiring people gathering signatures for ballot initiatives to live in Maine. The provision was enacted in 2015.

Faulkingham has until Feb. 26 to submit signatures to qualify for this year’s ballot.

Big loss

Phyllis Gardiner, the assistant attorney general assigned to the Secretary of State and Maine Ethics Commission, is retiring.

The unassuming Gardiner has been a steady hand for both agencies during some very turbulent times. She’s repeatedly and successfully defended Maine’s ranked-choice voting law in state and federal court where she often had to explain the runoff system to judges.

As legal counsel to the Ethics Commission, the state’s elections watchdog, Gardiner helped the commission through some difficult enforcement actions, including a high-profile dustup with the backers of a southern Maine casino initiative that ultimately tanked with voters in 2017.

Jonathan Wayne, director of the Ethics Commission, said Gardiner will be sorely missed.

“She is one of the best attorneys I have worked with in any capacity, and an exemplary public servant,” Wayne said in an email. “Her judgment, wisdom, and advice have been invaluable to the Commission. She’s helped us move in the right direction for the 17 years that I’ve been here, and I’ll miss working with her.”

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.