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Upheaval in state GOP appears far from over

Kyle Hopkins
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

This is how strange things have become for the Alaska Republican Party.

Veteran party leaders are hosting get-togethers to meet their new state GOP boss for the first time. The outgoing chairman is urging the Republican faithful to stay home when the statewide convention resumes next month in Anchorage, and for the first time in a dozen years of Republican king-making, no one is quite sure where the party is headed.

The upheaval came in late April. Ron Paul supporters scored a surprise triumph over old-guard Republicans by installing one of their own as the next party chairman. For right- leaning Alaskans it was either scary or exhilarating, depending on their brand of conservative beliefs.

"They only want to get Ron Paul nominated at the national convention. They could care less about the Republican Party of Alaska," said Gail Phillips, a former state party officer and former House speaker. "It's a means to getting what they want."

To others, such as 2010 U.S. Senate nominee Joe Miller, the leadership change signals a shift toward the small-government ideals that launched the tea party movement nationwide.

"The reform element and the liberty-minded element of the party basically got tired of business as usual," Miller told supporters in a May 10 teleconference.

Although Paul organizers say they did not coordinate with Miller, this year's convention marked something of a rematch between the Fairbanks lawyer and party leaders. Miller tried unsuccessfully to oust longtime GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich in 2008, saying the party had been hobbled by corruption trials under Ruedrich's watch.

Ruedrich did not run for re-election this year but expected one of his party lieutenants to win the job. Instead, an organized cadre of Paul supporters voted in 66-year-old Russ Millette, a semi-retired ad salesman unknown to many of the party faithful. Paul announced on Monday that he would effectively stop campaigning but urged supporters to continue their work of taking over state Republican delegations and conventions. In Alaska, establishment Republicans fear that means libertarian-leaning Paul supporters will attempt to rewrite party rules in an effort to claim all of the state's delegates for the Texas Congressman and swiften Ruedrich's exit from power.

Ruedrich, however, has some surprises of his own.

 

IN WITH THE NEW

Unless you're a GOP super voter, the drama inside the Republican Party may seem like someone else's problem. Yet it matters for anyone who steps inside a voting booth.

The party's job is to recruit candidates to the ballot, raise money to get them elected and help thwart Democratic challengers. Ruedrich knows the game well and, by most accounts, was good at it.

The state GOP is run by a central committee, but day-to-day operations fall to the chairman. The number of registered Republicans in Alaska has increased by more than 21,000 voters since Ruedrich became party boss. The number of registered Democrats shrank by 3,800.

A series of scandals failed to knock him from the post. Ruedrich survived an ethics charge sparked by Sarah Palin, a subsequent $12,000 civil fine for mixing party business with his state job, the 2008 coup attempt and an embarrassing series of corruption cases targeting top Alaska Republicans.

Millette, by comparison, is something of a mystery.

Born in Southern California, he moved to Alaska in 1975. He was 30 years old, traveling the state as a recruiter for Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

"I went to every high school I could find," Millette said.

About two years later he moved to Southcentral Alaska to establish a Christian school in Eagle River. He has lived in the state off and on ever since, working as a salesman for a company that publishes phone books in Alaska and for Bell South/AT&T during a nine-year stint in Atlanta that ended in 2005.

Millette says he has been registered to vote Republican most of his life. Division of Elections records show that he also was registered as nonpartisan and undeclared in the past three years.

He most recently changed his party affiliation from "nonpartisan" to Republican on Jan. 17, the records show.

"I have always voted for the constitutional conservative who I have perceived to tell the most truth," he said.

That includes Joe Miller, who Millette voted for twice -- first in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary against incumbent Lisa Murkowski, and again in the general election when Murkowski returned to wage a write-in campaign against the embattled GOP nominee.

Millette said he voted for Sarah Palin for governor but not for vice president. (He recalls voting for Florida pastor and Ron Paul supporter Chuck Baldwin, the Constitution Party candidate for president, in 2008.)

Millette was a delegate to the 2008 and 2012 state conventions, Ruedrich said.

He never served as a district chairman or party official for Alaska Republicans prior to his selection as the party chairman, but says he knocked on doors as a Reagan volunteer and served as a young precinct captain for Barry Goldwater in California. His stepfather sparked his interest in politics with a trip to a John Birch Society meeting when Millette was about 15, he says.

When Millette talks about fellow Paul supporters who last month won high-ranking posts in the state party organization, he says all are "independent, liberty minded people."

Paul backers won similar success in state Republican gatherings in Nevada and Maine. The goal: Master the complex process of selecting delegates to the national Republican convention, securing as much influence as possible for Paul's ideals.

The Minnesota Republican convention began Friday, with Paul supporters expected to flex outsized influence in the selection of national delegates.

In Alaska, Millette says more than a dozen people encouraged him to run for state Republican party chief. Among them: Evan Cutler of Girdwood, an organizer for Alaskans for Ron Paul 2012, and tea party activist David Eastman, a former Joe Miller campaign official. (In an email Saturday, Miller wrote that he met the new party chief for the first time at the state convention and did not "organize, direct, plan, plot or otherwise influenced what happened at the convention.")

Millette's new business cards as chairman-elect of the state Republican party quote Barry Goldwater: "Any government that's big enough to give you anything you want, is also big enough to take everything you've got."

He'd like to require prospective Republican candidates to sign a pledge supporting those small government ideals, Millette said.

Although Millette says he is a "pro-life" social conservative, the pledge likely wouldn't address social issues, he said. Signing the statement won't be necessary in order for Republican candidates to receive donations from the party, he said.

Deciding which candidates receive money won't be entirely his call, Millette said. "But if a candidate comes in and doesn't sign on that he supports the platform of the Republican Party or the Constitution of state of Alaska and wants to call himself a Republican, why should we support him?"

Millette tossed his tie over his shoulder as he talked about his political views over a Midtown lunch of burgers and fries. On one hand he's missing a middle finger -- woodshop mishap in high school, he says. On the other is a thick ring commemorating "hall of fame" service to yellow pages publisher GTE Directories.

The Republican Party chairman is a traditionally an unpaid post. Ruedrich, a chemical engineer and former Arco executive, at times treated it as a full-time job.

"Before Randy, party chairman changed like you change your socks," said former Anchorage Rep. Andrew Halcro, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Palin for governor.

"Most of them thought it was just a figurehead position. Didn't really do any work. But when Randy took over in 2000, here's a guy that instantly started studying precincts and voter turnout," he said.

The office also can be an expensive one, with the party boss expected to pay for the majority of his or her own travel to GOP meetings across the state.

Millette says he is semi-retired, though he owns an online directory of Alaska doctors and occasionally substitute teaches for the Anchorage School District. Mainly government and civics classes, he said.

 

MURKOWSKI NOT WELCOME?

On a recent weeknight, a mix of state Republican lawmakers, GOP insiders and conservative talk radio types gathered at the home of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Millette was the guest of honor, meeting some of the Republican bigwigs for the first time.

Millette was joined by the party's new incoming vice chairwoman, Debbie Brown of Kenai, also a Paul supporter.

The meeting started with a prayer, Treadwell said. "We prayed for the leadership of the party and the leadership of the state." As guests drank Coke and lemonade in the sunny Bootlegger Cove living room, Millette made his pitch.

"He spoke like a party chairman. He knows his job is to raise money. He knows his job is to recruit good candidates and he supports natural resource development," Treadwell said.

If there was a tense moment during the two-hour gathering, it was when someone asked Millette about Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Treadwell said.

Alaska's highest-ranking Republican, Murkowski fell in an upset to Miller in the 2010 primary. Rather than support Miller, Murkowski won an unprecedented write-in campaign, returning to the Senate.

The wound is still raw for some tea party voters. And for Miller, who says he walked out in protest before Murkowski was to speak at the April statewide convention.

A supporter of presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney, she was shouted down by the pro-Paul crowd. A YouTube video shows U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, struggling to speak above the boos and shouts of "Ron Paul! Ron Paul!"

At the recent get-together at Treadwell's house, Millette was asked whether Murkowski would be welcome at state Republican party events, said conservative talk show host Dan Fagan, who attended the meeting. Millette said it depends on how she behaved, Fagan said.

Ruedrich recalled that Millette said he would not invite her.

"She did say in the primary that whoever won the election, she would support. And then she didn't," Millette said in an interview.

 

RULES UP FOR GRABS

Paul supporters may have claimed the chairmanship and other leadership positions at the April 28 convention, but Ruedrich says they fell short of their chief goal: Changing party rules and claiming all 24 delegates to the national Republican convention for Paul.

Instead, Alaska will send six Paul delegates to Tampa in August. Eight Alaska delegates will be for Romney, who won the party preference poll March 6, and, as the presumed nominee, has already started campaigning against President Obama. Rick Santorum finished second in the preference poll; Paul placed third.

"The Ron Paul folks' absolute tactic is to delay and to discourage the opposition from participating so that they can control the process. They failed," Ruedrich said. "We elected a slate of delegates that reflected the will of the Alaska voters."

But the statewide convention isn't quite over. The results of the party election must still be officially announced, Ruedrich said, requiring the meeting to reconvene June 9 at Anchorage Christian Schools.

That could give Paul supporters another chance to rewrite party rules and send additional Paul loyalists to Tampa. Ruedrich is scheduled to be replaced by Millette on Feb. 1, but Paul supporters have proposed hastening that changeover to 30 days, said Frank McQueary, a longtime party official and co-chair of the convention rules committee.

There are two hurdles. First, the changes are only possible if enough Republican delegates show up to establish a quorum, McQueary said. Second, Paul supporters and their allies would need two-thirds of delegates to approve suspending state party rules.

Ruedrich says he's urging all Republicans who are not loyal to Paul to stay home. "We do not need to give (Paul supporters) the opportunity, based on their bad behavior before," he said.

Cutler, the volunteer organizer for Alaskans for Ron Paul 2012, said Ruedrich and others are the ones using dirty tricks. They ended the convention prematurely to scuttle rules changes, he said, and are relying on scare tactics to disenfranchise Paul delegates.

"We just spent, collectively, about half a million dollars to attend this convention and travel to it, and (Ruedrich) made sure we didn't get to finish our business," Cutler said.

Cutler said the Paul contingent has no plans to overturn the nomination of delegates selected to the national convention. "We believe that they were selected in a fair process," he said.

 

WANTED: A QUORUM

Roughly 250 delegates are needed for a quorum, Ruedrich said. That's more than the Paul supporters can muster, he said.

Miller isn't so sure.

"If we turn out all the reform minded folk that voted for that slate that was elected at the (convention), we're going to have the quorum and we're going to be able to effect change," he told supporters in the May 10 teleconference.

Paul supporters have claimed fewer than 20 seats on the party central committee, compared with more than 70 held by what Ruedrich calls "non-Ron Paul Republicans."

Still, Ruedrich has long been the face of the party. His departure begins a new chapter for Alaska Republicans.

Miller told supporters the change is an exciting one, swinging focus to the party's core conservative beliefs.

"If you're out there masquerading as a Republican, who really doesn't have any dedication to any of the views and the platform, then you might actually end up with a primary challenge," he told supporters.

Already, the party leadership has sent more than $120,000 to the Capitol City Republicans in Juneau rather than keep it in the statewide organization coffers.

"The funds were contributed with the general view that they would be used to support Republicans in the general election campaign," Ruedrich said. "We wanted to make sure they weren't used in the primary in what I would deem to be 'civil war' type activities."

Cutler, the Paul organizer, said Ruedrich has an irrational fear of his group. "We're just other Republicans," he said.

"Just imagine how much the Democrats would love it, if we couldn't even complete a state convention," Cutler said.

Many party mainstays liken the Ron Paul and tea party takeover to the rise of the Moral Majority influence in party politics in the 1980s.

"Some of them stayed in the party and have continued to be strong stalwarts of the Republican party principles for all these years," said Phillips, the former House Speaker. "But the majority of them who took over at that time, they have just disappeared."

Millette said he didn't know who Phillips was. "We'll see," he said when asked about her claim that Ron Paul supporters would abandon the party after the presidential nomination promise.

"I was elected to do a job for two years. I plan on doing that job for two years," he said.

 

 

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 


By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on