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At state GOP’s convention, being heard has a price

Party to charge candidates up to $25,000 to speak

The Massachusetts Republican Party, which often struggles to field strong challengers to Democratic incumbents, has added a new hurdle — it is charging candidates for governor $25,000 to speak at its upcoming state convention.

That cost, double what it was in 2010, is among several increases the party imposed on candidates this year to recoup the expenses of running the state convention, an event that the executive director says traditionally loses money.

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Among the new fees: a $10,000 surcharge for candidates vying for contested seats.

That’s right: For this Republican event, competition increases the cost.

Though the fees are causing some grumbling among party members, the state GOP says it is not trying to discourage upstart campaigns within its ranks.

‘You’re asking candidates to pay the party that’s supposed to be supporting candidates.’

DEBBIE McCARTHY 
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“The ultimate goal of this convention is to pick nominees for the statewide offices without costing the party and the delegates an inordinate amount of money,” said state GOP executive director Rob Cunningham. “It has nothing to do with personalities, with what candidates are running for what offices. Any belief that it’s anything other than that is just simply wrong.”

Massachusetts GOP fees are steep by some comparisons. Spokesmen for Republican state committees in New York, New Hampshire, and Connecticut all said their candidates campaign at conventions for free.

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“Couldn’t that money be better used for the Republican Party?” said Debbie McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Mark Fisher, the longshot Republican candidate challenging gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker. “You’re asking candidates to pay the party that’s supposed to be supporting candidates.”

At the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s convention, any declared candidate can give a 15-minute speech, said Travis Shofner, a spokesman for the party. Candidates pay separately for some items the Republican candidates get with their price of admission — for example table space at the convention, advertising in publications, and a list of past delegates.

The cost increases at this year’s GOP event vary by office. On top of the $10,000 surcharge that party officials say will help cover the cost of tallying votes in contested races, the price tag for gubernatorial candidates has jumped from $12,500 to $15,000, while increasing from $6,250 to $10,000 for lieutenant governor, attorney general, and treasurer. The cost for auditor and secretary of state remains the same — $3,125.

Cunningham said the fees are intended to pay for operational costs — lighting, sound amplification, a teleprompter. They also buy each candidate perks such as the placement of banners, tables for promotion, and the names of delegates whose support they will need to cultivate.

Still, the hefty fees have frustrated Fisher’s supporters. A political unknown and member of the Tea Party, Fisher hails from the wing of the state GOP that has long been skeptical of the Republican establishment.

When the Shrewsbury resident questioned state party officials about the fee this week, he said he was told, “ ‘You don’t have to pay the fee. But we’re going to turn off the speaker and sound system [during your floor speech].’ ”

“Could I bring a bullhorn?” Fisher said he asked.

He was told that he could.

In today’s political campaigns, candidates for statewide office will need to raise and spend far more than $25,000. Baker spent $6.7 million in his failed 2010 bid for governor, according to state campaign finance records.

Worcester and Lowell have traditionally played host to both Democratic and Republican conventions in recent years, offering cost-conscious hotel rooms and roomy space for gatherings. But this year, the Republicans chose to relocate to Boston for the first time in 24 years. The GOP plans to meet March 22 at the Agganis Arena at Boston University.

State committee treasurer Brent Andersen, a member of the site selection committee that reviewed the locations, said he cast the lone vote against the Boston location, largely due to cost. Worcester’s DCU Center had often waived fees for political use of the complex, he said.

In Boston, the convention is costing both the party and the delegates more. Delegates also have to pay to attend the convention — and costs are rising to $85 this year, in addition to parking and hotel expenses. Democratic delegates pay $75 to attend their convention.

“Everything’s more expensive in the city,” said state Representative Elizabeth A. Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican who said she is subsidizing the cost for some delegates who otherwise could not afford the trip this year. “These are people that want to be part of the system and everybody today is struggling.”

The conventions provide partisan voters one means of winnowing down their choices of candidates, but to get on the ballot candidates also must demonstrate their viability by collecting signatures from thousands of voters on nominating papers; a major-party candidate for governor must submit 10,000 signatures by May.

This year, Fisher noted, the Republican convention will take place well before those signatures are due — a reversal of tradition.

“Everybody can go to the convention — if they have $25,000,” Fisher said, referring to the gubernatorial candidates.

Roughly 3,000 Republican delegates typically attend the convention, and despite its unifying, celebratory feel, it does not always produce a consensus candidate.

A candidate can get on the ballot with the support of at least 15 percent of the delegates and sometimes more than one gets enough delegates. Four years ago, two candidates at the GOP convention qualified for the race for state auditor. Twenty-four years ago, Republicans endorsed Stephen Pierce for governor, rebuffing the man who would go on to win the election, William F. Weld.

For years, the state GOP establishment has been criticized for focusing its resources on its heavyweight candidate rather than building up more potential successors. Rank-and-file Republican activists often feel their party has little to show for the ambitions of individual leaders such as Weld and Mitt Romney.

Fisher, a first-time candidate and political unknown, has barely raised any money yet, instead running his campaign mostly on $165,000 in personal loans. His candidacy is predicated on making it through the convention with at least 15 percent of delegate support.

As a result, he said, he will pay the $25,000 fee.

“I don’t like it. I’m a business guy. We usually send out for quotes and get the best price,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert

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