Fraught national politics and the same type of disinformation that played a role in the deadly U.S. Capitol riot last week are colliding with more traditional advocacy efforts among Republicans in Maine as they look to affect state politics from a minority position.
Conservative rallies outside the State House became a regular feature over the last year amid opposition to Gov. Janet Mills’ coronavirus policies and several small ones of late have also referenced President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. But such demonstrations have come under increased scrutiny following the riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol last week that ended in five deaths, including a police officer.
Republican leaders in Maine quickly condemned the violence in Washington, with the state party characterizing it as “an affront to our Republican values.” But many had previously declined to recognize President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the November election or parroted claims of voter fraud that were at the foundation of rioters’ grievances.
Many Republicans, who are in the minority in both legislative chambers, now walk a narrow line as honest efforts to increase political participation and address longstanding concerns meld with falsehoods relating to Trump’s presidential loss, anger among some of his supporters and broad concerns about political violence in the aftermath of last week’s attacks.
Extreme rhetoric was on display on social media after the Capitol attacks last week, too. A since-deleted Facebook post from the Waterville Republican Committee compared rioters to George Washington and suggested the certification of results was a “fraud and coup.” State Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, condemned the rioters in a Facebook thread while alluding that politicians of both parties over the years should have been hanged for treason. She did not respond to requests for comment.
“A challenge for every elected official, all across this country, at any level, is finding ways to restore trust of the general public,” said former Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “Even though I believe it is a small segment of the population that doesn’t trust our elections anymore, it’s a significant segment and it can’t be left unattended to.”
Distrust about the election results spread in Maine last November. The state Republican Party initially threw financial support behind Trump’s election-related lawsuits before remaining mostly silent in recent weeks on his nonviable election challenges. Figures including former Maine Gov. Paul LePage alleged the election was “stolen” just after media outlets called the race for Biden.
READ MORE CAPITOL RIOT COVERAGE
As the president’s lawsuits failed and state and federal officials said there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud, allegations from official groups and prominent individuals faded. But claims continued to circulate on social media and talk radio.
Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, was among the lawmakers to suggest on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attacks that protesters might be members of antifa, saying they would likely be revealed as such “if history repeats itself.” The FBI later said there was no evidence of antifa involvement. Reached via phone this week, Stetkis said he was not saying antifa was responsible but thought there should be additional investigation.
“We need more evidence before people start blaming people for things,” Stetkis said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do in this country.”
Law enforcement officials have upped security around the Maine State House after the FBI warned of potential armed demonstrations in all 50 states in the coming weeks, though the FBI said it had no intelligence of a particular event in Maine. Tensions have trickled down, leaving smaller Maine cities and towns grappling with First Amendment issues and concerns about violence following months of protests by both anti-maskers and Black Lives Matter activists.
Advocates aiming at peaceful engagement also find themselves confronting concerns about violence, as former state Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, discovered. Campbell, who had been active in coronavirus-related protests in Augusta, founded a group, Swinging Gate, to capitalize on post-election conservative enthusiasm.
He said his goal was to teach citizens how to engage with state lawmakers peacefully and politely, saying “people don’t know that they should be contacting them” or even what they do or who they are, because he was often asked how he liked his office in Washington, D.C.
Campbell faced online pushback over the group’s name — a reference to a maneuver used by legendary Civil War Gen. Joshua Chamberlain during the Battle of Gettysburg — and a Facebook comment from former Maine Senate candidate John Linnehan that included the phrase “fix bayonets.” Campbell said he chose the name because he admires Chamberlain.
The former legislator characterized his role as that of a civics teacher. During the group’s first event on Saturday, he shut down a vague suggestion that activists storm the State House to force legislators back to work, according to attendees. Campbell said he was not concerned about such violence in Maine, noting that recent rallies in Augusta have been peaceful.
But Thibodeau, the former Maine Senate president, said the violence in Washington was as clear as a sign that politicians of both parties need to turn down divisive rhetoric.
“If that isn’t the wake up call, then what is it going to take?” he said.