SHREWSBURY — Charlie Baker, the leading Republican candidate for governor, named former state representative Karyn Polito as his running mate Tuesday, presenting voters with a unified ticket fully 11 months before the gubernatorial election.
Polito’s selection serves as an overture to party conservatives, among whom she is popular, and as an effort to raise Baker’s standing among female voters, a constituency he lost heavily when he ran for the corner office in 2010.
Her hometown of Shrewsbury also bolsters Baker’s candidacy in Worcester County, a stronghold for Republicans in recent elections.
Polito, in her 2010 bid for state treasurer, racked up more votes than Baker did in the three-way race for governor. As she announced her candidacy at a Shrewsbury diner on Tuesday, she said she wants voters to see her as a “mom, a business owner, and an optimist.”
“I believe that the best days are ahead for our Commonwealth, and I know Charlie believes it, too,” Polito said.
Baker described Polito, 47, as a public servant in the mold of “one of both of our mentors, the late, great Paul Cellucci,” under whom Baker served as budget chief.
In Massachusetts, primary voters cast ballots for governor and lieutenant governor separately. Since Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci teamed up successfully in 1990, GOP gubernatorial candidates have preferred the buddy system as a way to blunt Democrats’ numerical advantage.
A lawyer, Polito is also part owner of Polito Development Corp. She served in the House from 2001 to 2011, giving up her seat to run for treasurer. Late in her tenure, she helped lead a dissident faction of the Republican caucus that split with GOP leadership, arguing that it caved in too easily to the Democratic majority.
Democrats sought to depict Polito Tuesday as a creature of the GOP’s far right, previewing a likely line of attack they will deploy during the campaign.
“The Charlie Baker campaign makeover has come to a screeching halt,” said Stephen Kerrigan, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “In choosing Karyn Polito as his running mate, Charlie Baker is showing his true colors by aligning himself with an avid backer of the Tea Party movement whose views are well outside our Commonwealth’s mainstream.”
Baker’s camp pushed back, saying Polito, who voted against gay marriage after the Supreme Judicial Court legalized it in 2003, has evolved on the issue, the way many Democrats have, and now favors gay marriage. A Baker aide pointed to Polito’s high marks from the NARAL abortion rights group and her vote to override Governor Mitt Romney’s veto of stem cell research legislation.
“It’s the only play they’ve got,” a Baker campaign adviser said of Democratic efforts to portray Polito as an extremist. “I think they’re desperately scared that Baker so far is running a very good campaign.”
Baker’s pick is not without potential downsides, stemming from Polito’s days on Beacon Hill. In 2002, she filed legislation empowering Shrewsbury to buy land near an industrial park, and helped get the state to fund a road linking the town to a Grafton commuter rail station. Commercial real estate specialists said the development could increase the value of her family’s property.
In 2010, the Globe reported that she had appeared to help friends and family obtain sought-after Red Sox commemorative license plates.
Polito has denied any conflict in either case.
On Tuesday, Baker said he had decided to invite Polito onto his ticket “before Thanksgiving,” after a series of conversations that began after the summer. Baker’s campaign had been divided over whether to select a running mate or to leave the decision to the voters, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Baker’s is not the first running mate invitation Polito has received. During his 2010 campaign for governor, as an independent, Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill asked her to join his ticket. Polito, citing party loyalty, declined.
Polito had signaled her intention to run for lieutenant governor regardless of whether it was alongside Baker. By running together, the duo avoids duplicative campaign expenses between now and when voters would formalize a ticket next September. One political observer estimated the union could save Republicans up to $2 million in reduced costs.
In 2010, Baker ran with former Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, a gay, prochoice Republican whose selection disappointed some conservatives.
The selection of Polito should help Baker with those voters. Earlier this year, Polito chaired the Senate campaign of Michael J. Sullivan, the former US attorney whose candidacy became a refuge for social conservatives disillusioned with the other two Republican candidates.
“They want a strong winning ticket, and Polito rounds that out,” Republican consultant Will Ritter said Tuesday.
Democrats Kerrigan and Mike Lake are also running for lieutenant governor. Lake said former governor Michael S. Dukakis will formally endorse him next week.
Baker has drawn a challenge from Mark Fisher, also of Shrewsbury, who formed a fund-raising committee last month.
Standing in Brody’s Diner Tuesday, Polito said she and Baker had bonded over their local government tenures, their families, and a shared optimism for Massachusetts.
Asked how Baker could improve his performance among female voters, whom he lost by 24 percentage points three years ago, according to a post-election MassINC poll, Polito replied, “I think he’s doing a good job today.”
Polito appeared to be a regular at Brody’s, formerly known as the Pastrami Shack. Waitresses referred to her by her first name and said she and her family were longtime regulars.
Hanging on the diner walls were reminders of Bay State Republicans’ most recent success story: a photograph of former senator Scott Brown, leaning on his GMC pickup outside the US Capitol.