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Top Mass. GOP figures plot 2014 strategy

It’s not clear if Charles D. Baker (left) or Scott Brown will seek the governorship next year.

It’s not clear if Charles D. Baker (left) or Scott Brown will seek the governorship next year.

A select cohort of top Massachusetts Republicans met quietly last week to discuss the party’s prospects for 2014, hoping to organize a top-to-bottom-of-the-ticket strategy that could help the party grapple back to relevance.

But few decisions can be made until two of the figures involved in the meeting finalize their own political intentions.

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Charles D. Baker, the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee, and former senator Scott Brown have not yet made clear whether either plans to run for governor next year. Several people in the meeting said they believe Baker plans to run, while Brown’s intentions are less obvious.

With Governor Deval Patrick leaving the job, the corner office represents the GOP’s top concern, offering an open seat and a chance to take back a post Republicans held for 16 years before losing it to Patrick in 2006.

Until Baker or Brown — or both, though GOP insiders deem that unlikely — jumps into the governor’s race, the party’s recruitment process for a number of offices is in a holding pattern.

“You usually run into problems if you presume that you can move people around like chess pieces; you can’t,” said one senior Massachusetts Republican who participated in the meeting. “But we talked about some of the races and who the potential candidates might be.”

The person described the gathering as “an informal group to begin the planning for 2014.”

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The party headquarters confab included, either in person or on the phone, former governor William F. Weld; Eric Fehrnstrom, Peter Flaherty, and Beth Myers, all former advisers to Brown and Mitt Romney; Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman; Boston lobbyist and party strategist Stephen Silveira; former Brown and Baker finance director John Cook; and Timothy O’Brien, a health care executive who was Baker’s campaign manager in 2010. Baker and Brown both participated by phone.

Kaufman called the group “a list of the people who really can impact elections in this state.”

After the gathering, Weld said he thought that Baker, a former senior aide, was the party’s top choice.

“I think Charlie Baker is an obvious candidate for governor and at the end of the day the best one,” Weld said in a telephone interview. “I’ve said for 15 years that he was the heart and soul of the Weld-Cellucci administration and, to the extent we did good things, Charlie Baker was behind almost all of them. I think he would be a spectacular performer in office, and I plan to do what I can to see that he gets there.”

Baker served as Weld’s top health and human services aide and later as his budget chief.

While no consensus on slotting candidates on the ballot emerged from the meeting, the party mandarins appear set on constructing a more robust roster of statewide and congressional candidates than they have in the past, drawing in part from a bench of candidates who have lost recent races.

“There’s some thought this year that there might be some advantage to doing what we used to do in the old days, which is having a slate of candidates who could all help each other, and I am one of those who thinks that’s a good idea,” said Weld, whose election in 1990, with Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci and Treasurer Joseph Malone, was something of a high-water mark for the GOP over the last several decades.

Brown has repeatedly said that he plans to consider myriad career options, not ruling out a run against newly sworn-in Senator Edward J. Markey next year or a campaign for a US Senate seat in New Hampshire, where he owns a second home.

He has also publicly kept open the idea of running for governor and frequently mentions how much he is enjoying his private-sector career as a white-shoe lawyer and Fox News contributor.

Kaufman said they still have time before they must coordinate and decide who will run for governor.

“It’s too soon,” Kaufman said. “They both have an advantage in that they’ve run before, they have name ID, they have a proven ability to raise money, they both have good folks, and they both have the advantage of being able to wait.”

The other Republican whose plans drew heavy attention was Gabriel E. Gomez, who lost to Markey last month.

Some Republicans compare Gomez to Malone and to Mitt Romney after each challenged Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1988 and 1994, respectively. Like them, Gomez is a relatively green candidate who has done his party a service by taking on a Democratic dragon, despite the odds.

“I think the state treasurer’s office is one that Gomez would have an excellent shot at winning,” Weld said.

“People would like to see him run in 2014, but he hasn’t made clear what office he’s interested in,” said the senior Republican. “He’s viewed as an up-and-comer who has proven himself in a statewide race.”

Despite a Democratic sweep of constitutional offices in 2010, dampening the GOP’s high hopes after Brown’s victory earlier that year, two Republicans who ran strongly that year have merited repeated mentions: Karyn E. Polito, who lost her bid for treasurer, and Mary Z. Connaughton, who ran unsuccessfully for auditor. They were the top two vote-
getters among Republican candidates in 2010.

“They both deserve a lot of consideration,” Weld said. “They both ran strongly and with more money behind them might have won.”

While the participants in last week’s meeting account for the biggest names among state Republicans, they also represent the moderate wing of the party.

Within the GOP grass roots, a more conservative strain, less tolerant of the centrist ideology to which statewide Republicans traditionally hew, has grown active.

State Republican Party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes, who convened the meeting, has said that she plans to hold a number of meetings across the state.

And, even within the crew of establishment figures assembled, there are fault lines that date back to the 1990s.

The gubernatorial primary between Cellucci and Malone in 1998 left rifts that still rankle party operatives, including some who took part in the meeting.

Hughes said trying to bridge that years-old divide was part of her thinking.

“This coming year is a reflection on me personally and my ability to get things done, and so I wanted to bring as many people who have experience in Massachusetts politics together to talk about the upcoming season,” she said.

Hughes added, “I have a relationship with a lot of different teams, the Romney team, the Weld guys, crossing intra-party lines. There’s a conscious decision to bring in everyone who has thoughts on this, and there’s some great talent on all those teams.

“And time heals all wounds, and anger isn’t what it used to be.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.

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