It’s a two-man race in the Pine Tree State. But the contest isn’t between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich; it’s between Romney and Ron Paul.
In 2008, Paul won third place in Maine’s caucuses with 18 percent of the vote. But he was only 178 votes shy of tying John McCain for second. And this year, with an extra push, Paul might just be able to win the state outright.
“The Paul campaign has really dedicated the resources to the state that make it possible for them to win the caucuses,” says Ken Lindell, chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus. (The caucus’s national organization has endorsed Paul, but Lindell has no official role in the Paul campaign.) “They’re doing real voter-ID calls — not robo-calls like they did last time,” he adds. “As far as I can tell, they’re the only campaign that has a real ground game.”
The seriousness of Paul’s efforts was on display last weekend. On Friday, he met with Governor Paul LePage; on Saturday, he led several rallies, including one in Freeport that attracted 1,000 Mainers. Although LePage didn’t endorse Paul — the event was more of a “meet and greet” — LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett says, “I hear [the interaction] was positive.”
Paul did receive the endorsement of state representative Aaron Libby, who met the congressman while visiting Washington, D.C., in 2010 with a delegation of apple farmers. Asked why he supports Paul, Libby mentions a characteristic that many of the congressman’s supporters admire: consistency. “It’s so rare for a politician to stick to their principles,” he says. “Congressman Paul truly represents something different.”
But Libby is an outlier among Republican elected officials, many of whom have lined up behind Romney. In September, the Romney campaign released a list of 40 Maine politicos who had endorsed the ex-governor, including state attorney general William Schneider.
“Mitt Romney appears to be leading significantly among the Republicans that I’ve been in touch with,” says state-house majority leader Phil Curtis.
Their support is indicative of Romney’s strength in the Pine Tree State. He won 52 percent of the caucus vote in 2008. And his campaign is organized — unlike Newt Gingrich’s or Rick Santorum’s, neither of which is highly visible in Maine.
But Paul’s forces are especially organized. They are training their members in the intricacies of caucus politics. Last Friday, for instance, they held a conference call in which they explained the delegate-election procedures for potential candidates. A Maine GOP official tells NRO that Paul’s supporters have even been helping Republican town committees organize. They’ve been making sure committees elect chairmen, which enables them to hold caucuses — caucuses that could deliver more delegates to Paul.
Although Romney’s organization is predictably formidable, “I haven’t seen any organized effort by the Romney campaign to do that,” says Richard Bennett, the Republican national committeeman for Maine and a Romney supporter.
Consider Penobscot County. Traci Gauthier, chairwoman of the county Republican committee, tells NRO, “[Paul’s] campaign has been calling and making sure they have the times right and which towns will be at the caucus. I’ve also been contacted about a speaking opportunity by his ground people. And the only other candidate we’ve heard from is Mitt Romney.”
Or try the town of Palermo, which held its caucus on Sunday. Republican-town-committee chairwoman Cheryl Parkman tells NRO that 14 people attended the caucus. Despite the small turnout, Parkman says four people representing the Paul campaign showed up and spoke on behalf of the congressman.
“They’re very articulate,” she says. “They’re really great with their grassroots.” Although Parkman couldn’t reveal the results of the caucus vote, she hints, “Every candidate was represented there in the vote.”
Only Paul’s campaign showed up at the caucus in Millinocket, says David Duplisea, chairman of the town Republican committee, which caucused on Monday. Forty-eight people attended the caucus, and there were a couple of Paul backers, brandishing brochures and signs.
Before the vote, the committee allowed a representative from each campaign to speak. “We had a call from Mitt Romney’s campaign,” Duplisea says. “But for them to travel it would have been a three-hour trip; they’re down in Portland.” Instead, a local supporter spoke on his behalf. (No one spoke for Gingrich or Santorum.)
The caucuses are already underway, though the Maine GOP has encouraged towns to hold their events between February 4 and February 11, when it will announce statewide results. Within this seven-day window, each Republican town committee follows a similar procedure, of which Paul’s supporters are taking advantage.
The chairman issues a call for a caucus, held at a convenient location such as a fire house or high school. In some cases, multiple towns hold their caucuses at the same location — locals call them “super caucuses” — though each municipality votes separately. Unregistered or unaffiliated voters (among whom Paul is popular) have an hour before the event to adjust their registrations so they can participate in the caucus. Registered party members, however, cannot change affiliations at the last minute; they have to switch 15 days in advance.
Before caucus-goers vote, they conduct routine business, such as electing officers of the town committee and, crucially, selecting delegates to the state convention, which opens on May 5 in Augusta. The vote itself is the least consequential piece of business, since the caucus is a “beauty contest” — its results aren’t binding on the state’s delegates to the national convention. Each town reports its results to the state party, which releases them on February 11. But the real contest is the selection of delegates, who will determine their standard bearer at the convention.
All 24 of Maine’s delegates to the national convention are unbound. At the state convention, the delegates chosen in the coming weeks will assemble to choose the national delegation. The first three votes will consist of the state-party chairman, the national committeeman, and the national committeewoman. Maine’s two congressional districts will receive three delegates each, whom the corresponding town delegations will choose at the state convention. Finally, the entire convention will choose the remaining 15 at-large delegates.
In other words, Maine’s caucuses reward the perseverant, and no word could better describe the Paulistas.
They’ll be exploiting every advantage they have. Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP, tells NRO that the Paul campaign has contacted him and discussed having Senator Rand Paul, the congressman’s son, address the convention. “We’re willing to have everybody who wants to get involved,” he says.
They’ve actually worked this advantage before. In 2008, despite the fact that John McCain had clearly won the nomination by the time of Maine’s state convention, the Paul forces managed to elect at least one Paul delegate to the national convention. In 2010, the Paulistas wielded enough strength among the state-convention delegates that they threw out the platform proposed by the party, a Maine Republican operative tells NRO.
“Those [Paul supporters] have slowly begun to work their way into the system itself and now are much more accepted parts of the system. I really think there’s going to be a strong performance for Ron Paul,” the operative says.
Paul’s message of limited government may prove particularly persuasive within the 2nd Congressional District, which covers the more rural part of the state. The far northern Aroostook County, for instance, went for Paul in the 2008 contest.
“I think Mr. Paul has done well in some of those more rural areas because they tend to be more conservative,” observes state representative Andre Cushing. Romney’s strength, on the other hand, will probably be in the central and southern parts of the state, surrounding the I-95 corridor.
Asked to evaluate Paul’s chances for winning, the operative says, “I would probably still be betting on Romney winning, but I can see a scenario in which Ron Paul either wins or comes close.”
Lindell concludes, “This might be the state that Ron Paul can win.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its original posting.