Wednesday, March 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — A leader of the renegade "Maine delegates" who clashed publicly with party officials at last summer's Republican National Convention may vie later this month for an even bigger megaphone within the party: the position of national Republican chairman.
Mark Willis, one of Maine's three representatives to the Republican National Committee, acknowledges it would be a long shot for him to win election as party chairman during the RNC's winter meeting later this month. Willis still needs another state's endorsement to even get on the ballot.
But Willis' challenge of sitting RNC chairman Reince Priebus is, in many ways, a clear sign that the small and boisterous libertarian wing of the Republican Party that backed Ron Paul for president is still clawing for greater recognition in a deeply divided party. And Willis hopes his candidacy -- even if unsuccessful -- will further that conversation.
"He (Priebus) seems to have the votes locked up, but I don't think any candidate should run unopposed, especially after what happened at the convention and in the November elections," Willis said. "Someone from the grass roots needs to get on the ballot and stand before that body and explain to them what has happened over the last six months."
Republicans from all 50 states will gather in Charlotte, N.C., to elect a new chairman on Jan. 25. To be eligible, a candidate must receive endorsements from the majority of committee members representing at least three states. So far, Willis has received commitments from just Maine and Nevada.
Willis said he had hoped that another high-profile individual would step up to run. But he agreed to take on the challenger role after being contacted by fellow Mainer and former pro-Paul delegate Bryan Daugherty of Bangor. Daugherty has been helping coordinate a "Step Down Now" campaign against Priebus. The people behind that effort are now working to get a third state's delegation to endorse Willis.
To be sure, Willis would be an unlikely Republican chairman.
Three former governors or lieutenant governors have held the RNC chair position during the past dozen years while most other occupants during that time had high-level, national political connections before being elected to head the committee. Willis, on the other hand, has never held a high-profile elective office. He and his wife, Violet, live with their children on a farm in Dennysville, a rural town in Washington County. A veteran, he now works as an application security manager for corporations.
Willis and other libertarian-minded Paul supporters organized a takeover of the Maine Republican convention last year. They now control many of the seats on the Maine State Republican Committee.
Willis, like many others in that group, are still angry over the treatment of Maine delegates who supported Paul at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Following weeks of internal strife within the Maine Republican Party, RNC officials removed 10 elected Maine delegates who backed Paul and replaced them with Mitt Romney supporters. The reasoning: Maine's delegate-selection process was riddled with procedural errors and illegal votes.
Paul supporters, in turn, accused the Romney campaign of rigging the RNC process to block the libertarian Texas congressman from receiving enough states to earn a prime time speaking role.
The dispute spilled into the convention hall, which several times echoed with chants of "Seat Maine Now!" and "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." Willis led the group off of the convention floor in protest. And later, the "Maine delegates" were joined by other libertarian-minded Republicans from around the country who were angry about the treatment of Paul supporters and rule changes they claim weaken the role of grass-roots activists.
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