For most of the past legislative session, Republican Gov. Paul LePage (right) has been able to direct policy from the second floor of the State House with the full use of his veto power. Fellow Republicans aligned to ward off most veto override attempts.
But that unity dissolved - despite pressure from conservatives within the party - when it came to the veto of the Legislature's compromise state budget. And LePage was aghast last week as he watched 30 of the 72 Republican members present cast ballots against him.
"I will say this: The Republican Party is not a very strong party," LePage said.
The override of the budget veto followed a sexual remark LePage made to a reporter directed at an assistant Democratic leader. Republicans lawmakers say they've been fielding some negative reactions from constituents from that remark. And Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz published a newspaper piece saying that he was embarrassed by LePage.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette went as far as to address the divisions created by LePage and the budget on the House floor. "The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand," Fredette said.
Republicans lost the majorities they had earned back in 2012, and party unity may prove elusive in next year's elections. MaryEllen FitzGerald is president of the Critical Insights polling and marketing group in Portland.
"There are Republicans who see themselves as more conservative, more fiscally conservative, than their Democratic counterparts, and so they identify with the Republican Party," FitzGerald says. "But still, when it comes to major issues, such as the energy omnibus bill or the governor's budget, there's a much stronger tendency to vote on the issue rather than to hold the party line. And when you see that kind of fragmentation, it's kind of the death knell for a political party," FitzGerald says.
"I think that there certainly are Republicans who are unhappy with the people in our caucus who voted in favor of tax increases," says Rep. Stacey Guerin.
Guerin, a Republican from Levant, says her constituents expect GOP lawmakers to stand on principles that include lower taxes and smaller government. Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport agrees, and says that votes have consequences.
"I actually think that it will play out in the next election cycle," Thibodeau says. "I think that the people will be looking to send more fiscally conservative people here to the State House."
But there are other Republicans who voted with LePage who say GOP members need to put their differences behind them and move on. Rep. Deborah Sanderson is a Chelsea Republican who voted against the budget override.
"You've got to ask yourself: Why are you here? What are you fighting for? And are you willing to just throw in the towel and walk away because you didn't get what you want this time?" Sanderson says. "If that's how everybody conducted their lives, then we'd have a whole lot of people just throwing in the towel because you don't always get what you want."
Lawmakers will return to the State House next Tuesday to take up more of the bills vetoed by the governor.
Editor's Note: MaryEllen FitzGerald is a trustee emeritus of MPBN.
File Photo: Tom Porter