Signs of life on the right

Nearly two months ago, I wrote a column that highlighted the failure of the conservative movement to use grassroots politics to compete with the Democratic Party.

I brought to light the impact made in Maine by grassroots organizing on the left, highlighted by the Maine People’s Alliance (among other groups) and noted that the conservative infrastructure had no such organization.

I blame many of the election losses experienced by the right in 2012 on this disparity. MPA empowers the liberal grassroots activists in the state; it identifies and organizes voters; it persuades fence-sitters through smart voter contact; and it ramps up turnout on behalf of so-called progressive candidates and issues.

With nothing on the right to counter it, and an avalanche of support money, Democrats were able to muscle out win after win in toss-up districts, which ended up being decided by fewer than 100 votes.

Additionally, grassroots groups on the left are permanently mobile and are perhaps their most active when they mobilize to lobby on behalf of issues. A state representative who is undecided on an issue can easily be persuaded with a small number of letters or phone calls, and a healthy presence in Augusta testifying at a committee hearing can (and does) tip the balance on a vote.

They do this and are good at it. We do not and are not.

That may be changing, however.

Some conservative leaders have recently begun coming together behind a newly formed organization, which is being called the Maine Citizens Coalition.

The organization was initiated by Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, and Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, and its stated mission is to attempt to balance the scales on the ground and make use of grassroots politics to build a durable consensus on conservative policymaking.

To do this, they plan to do all the things the right isn’t doing now, namely grassroots politics. They intend to create a long-term, permanent vehicle to push for conservative change continuously, rather than appearing and disappearing each election cycle, losing all progress made and constantly starting from scratch.

In addition, it will have a large staff focused on voter contact and mobilization and will make use of tools — like technology and data — that conservatives in Maine have never successfully leveraged in politics.

Building any organization such as this is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the current divisions found on the political right.

The Maine Citizens Coalition could be, for instance, a group of establishment hacks intent on protecting the power base of the chosen elite of the party. Or, it could be a rabble-rousing group intent on lighting the establishment on fire.

Something like this cannot succeed unless it serves to unify the disparate parts of the party, and, smartly, it seems to have done so. Every constituent ideology that makes up the center-right coalition is represented in the organization, from moderates to religious conservatives, libertarians and traditional conservatives, as well as the establishment and anti-establishment alike.

The internal politics of the Maine Republican Party, frequently a source of conflict within the activist community, is baggage they simply do not have. By focusing on the issues, ideas and philosophies that unify the conservative movement and not having to deal with so much of what the party has to, they have the ability to offer a broader participation to energized activists of all stripes.

Still, Rome wasn’t built overnight, and the leaders of the Citizens Coalition are aware it will take some time to turn the organization into a statewide force. The People’s Alliance, for instance, slowly grew over the course of many years.

That said, they have begun raising a significant amount of money and will soon begin to make their presence felt in selected areas of the state.

If they are successful, and I believe they will be, then my dream of political races being fought on equal footing in Maine may finally be realized.

I would encourage all conservatives in Maine to see to it that this effort succeeds. Support the Maine Citizens Coalition. Find a way to get involved.

With an organized, intelligent political operation, there is a chance they may finally build a real, durable conservative majority in Augusta.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.