In this June 30, 2021, file photo, former Maine Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, is seen in the House chamber in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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After their disappointing election season, Maine Republicans changed leadership last month, selecting leaders who espouse conspiracies, compare vaccines to Nazi war crimes and push culture war issues. This step took the party farther away from the state’s values and priorities.

Ousting party chair Demi Kouzounas, the Maine Republican Party state committee replaced her with conspiracy theorist Joel Stetkis. The day after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Stetkis, who then served as the Maine House GOP whip, blamed the violence on the left, not the insurrectionists who attacked police with flagpoles bearing Trump flags. On Facebook, he wrote, “If History repeats itself as it usually does, it’s likely we found [sic] out the people responsible for the violence were ANTIFA or anarchists, not the 99.9% of the Freedom-loving folks.”

Stetkis won with support from Rep. Heidi Sampson, who wanted to be chair but couldn’t because party rules say sitting legislators can’t serve. As the Maine Wire described it, after offering to resign her seat, “In a dramatic intervention, Sampson addressed the committee saying she considered the Republican party a ‘family’ and would not willingly tear it apart. She then withdrew her candidacy and threw her support behind Stetkis. Returning to her seat, she and Stetkis hugged.”

This embrace was not just an endorsement but also a sign of the power of conspiracy theorists in the party. Sampson is an election denialist who not long ago received considerable publicity, criticism and calls to resign for her antisemitic, anti-vaccine statements and her appearance with a prominent antisemite.

In July 2022, Sampson attended an event headlined by Robert David Steele, who blamed the Holocaust on “elite Jews” and claimed that Zionists belong to the “Synagogue of Satan.” Sampson refused to apologize for legitimizing this hate.

Then at an August rally Sampson compared the COVID vaccine and mandates to “the experiments with Josef Mengele.” Building on this outrageous statement, Sampson proclaimed “We have Joseph Mengele and Joseph Goebbels being reincarnated here in the state of Maine,” and implied one was Gov. Janet Mills and the other the governor’s sister, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, a health care administrator.

Less noticed at the time, Maine’s new GOP Chair Stetkis spoke after Sampson at the August event. Instead of rebuking her, he joined in. As Maine Public journalist Steve Mistler reported, “He too deployed the Nazi trope, portraying the current Democratic majority as an oppressive regime hellbent on crushing individual liberty. He co-opted a famous quote by German concentration camp survivor Martin Niemöller to make his point.”

Stetkis and Sampson reflect the turn toward extremism in the GOP, as comparisons between vaccine requirements and Nazis are common among COVID truthers like U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. While we don’t have data showing if most Maine Republicans agree or disagree with these two Mainers, their views didn’t thwart their leadership bids. Rather, according to the Maine Wire, Stetkis and Sampson had support from “the grassroots” and “activists.”

Meanwhile, Samuel Bridges, the new party co-chair, was recently in the news for organizing against a drag show. He’s not an outlier, either. The Maine Republican Party’s embrace of culture war issues was central to its May 2022 platform deliberations. A floor vote to remove the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage failed. New planks were anti-trans and opposed critical race theory and sex education through 12th grade.

But when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins spoke at the state convention later that day, who did she peg as divisive and extremist? Democrats. According to the Portland Press Herald, “Maybe we should buy [Democrats] a mirror,” she jested, referring to the proposed Maine Democratic Party platform, which condemned the Jan. 6 insurrection and blamed “fringe political factions” for “pitting neighbors against neighbors.” Asked by the paper for her reaction to her party’s platform, Collins did not respond.

The takeover of the Maine GOP leadership by MAGA forces marks a further break with Maine’s already eroded civil, moderate Republican legacy. Republicans who disagree but stay silent — rather than actively countering — are complicit with conspiracy theorists and culture warriors. Meanwhile, most Maine voters surely would prefer an emphasis on improving their lives in concrete ways.

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Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...