Last July, some of the Massachusetts GOP’s old guard gathered at the state Republican Party headquarters to lay the groundwork for a full-throttle effort to regain a broad foothold on Beacon Hill.Six months later, those hopes remain elusive.
With its endorsement convention six weeks away, the party is struggling to fill out a robust ticket of statewide candidates who could seriously threaten the Democratic hold on state government.
Their best prospect, gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker, who polls show will probably run a strong campaign against Democrats, is facing a troublesome dynamic in which he will be forced to compete with two independent candidates for the unenrolled voters who swing state elections.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Republicans lost their biggest star, Scott Brown, who has bolted from his native state to test the waters in New Hampshire for a US Senate race. Some believe that Brown could have been a serious challenger this fall to Senator Edward Markey, who a recent poll showed has failed to garner the type of support that could protect him in a reelection fight. That survey showed that 43 percent of respondents said it was time to give a new candidate a chance.
Brown’s abrupt departure is particularly dispiriting in that his 2010 special US Senate race win gave the Republican Party hope of a vigorous GOP comeback.
“It’s been bleak for some time for the Massachusetts Republicans, but it’s just a bit bleaker now,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College. “Their high-water mark may have been January 2010. It has been a slow and steady decline since then.’’
“Brown’s leaving, so soon after his loss, is symbolic of the demoralized state of the party,’’ Ubertaccio said. “They don’t have the farm team available to step up.”
In another blow, Gabriel Gomez, the party’s US Senate nominee who ran a surprisingly competitive race against Markey last year, has taken himself out of the mix of GOP candidates for the 2014 elections.
He had already ruffled feathers within the party ranks when he donated to and attended a kick-off event for Jeffrey McCormick, a wealthy independent, whom many say could create a serious drag on Baker’s campaign. Gomez has since pivoted back to the party line and has endorsed Baker.
Even Mitt Romney, who tried at one point to reinvigorate the party when he was governor, has all but retreated from the Massachusetts political scene.
In a statement to the Globe, Republican Party chairman Kirsten Hughes expressed confidence that party leadership can field competitive candidates. She also strongly disputed the notion that the GOP is facing more problems than it has in the recent past.
“The Republican Party is strong and growing,’’ Hughes said. “Currently, the party is aggressively moving forward with candidates across the state.”
“Republican grassroots helped contribute to the success of the gas tax ballot question,” which will be decided this fall, she noted. “Our message has never been stronger.”
One potential bright spot for the GOP is former Senate minority leader Richard Tisei of Wakefield, who came within a handful of votes of defeating US Representative John Tierney in 2012. Tisei has launched a second bid to unseat Tierney, whose troubles over his wife’s federal tax problems have weakened his standing and have even drawn a Democratic challenger.
Baker was also able to bolster his ticket by picking a veteran political figure with statewide campaign experience, Karyn E. Polito.
Hughes says she is confident that in addition to Baker and Polito, the party will field a strong top-to-bottom ticket for other state constitutional offices.
Mike Heffernan, a Wellesley businessman who has never run for public office, announced that he is running for state treasurer.
Dave D’Arcangelo, a Malden city councilor, will run for secretary of state. No GOP candidates for attorney general or auditor have yet emerged.
Some party insiders, who did not want to speak for the record because of the sensitive nature of the issue, say they are discouraged, although sympathetic to Hughes’s problems. They note the sharp contrast to the energy that came in the wake of Brown’s early 2010 victory, when prospective candidates did not need to be recruited for the November contest.
Polito’s run that year for state treasurer and the state auditor candidacy of Mary Z. Connaughton, who made headlines as a state turnpike director, gave the GOP ticket a serious lift with strong campaigns, even as they lost.
That year also saw the GOP pick up 15 seats in the state House of Representatives, its biggest gain in recent memory and a jump that helped nearly double the size of its 16-member caucus. Some of those gains were eroded in 2012.
While it may be hard to recoup loses in the House this year, Republicans hope to add to their four-member caucus in the 40-member Senate. They are looking to gain in several districts where Democrats have long held seats, but which have shifted Republican in recent years.
Political analysts on both sides of the aisle say that apart from the governor’s race, the GOP’s best chances of winning a constitutional office this year would come if they could find competitive candidates for attorney general and state treasurer, two jobs which will be left vacant while Democratic incumbents run for governor.
But two viable contenders for attorney general — Peter G. Flaherty, a former top aide to Romney, and Daniel B. Winslow, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat now held by Markey — have both taken their names out of consideration. With his political experience and financial resources, Flaherty, 48, of Belmont, was seen by many as the GOP’s best hope of capturing the attorney general’s office, while Winslow, a former state representative from Norfolk, was also viewed as a sound option.
As for the Senate race, Markey is grappling to get a firm hold on the office and shore up his popularity. Without Brown, Gomez, or another robust candidate to run against the Democrat, the GOP had no choice but to settle on a Hopkinton selectman, Brian J. Herr, a little-known Republican who faces a very steep climb in his bid to unseat the senator.
Despite his election to the Senate last June, Markey has yet to make much of an impression on voters, with just 34 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of him, according to a recent poll conducted by MassINC.
Baker, who favors gay marriage and is an abortion-rights supporter, appears to be bridging what have been in the past serious fault lines within the GOP over gay marriage and abortion. But to clinch the nomination, Baker must still overcome a challenge from the right by socially conservative Tea Party candidate Mark R. Fisher, a Shrewsbury businessman.
Fisher, a political novice, is a longshot to upset Baker in a primary and could struggle to qualify for the ballot. That will require him to get 15 percent of the delegates at the party’s March 22 convention.
Four years ago, Baker avoided a primary fight when he crushed an opponent, Christy Mihos, at the convention by getting 89 percent of the votes.
This time around, the way Baker is appealing to social conservatives, in part, is by emphasizing that they have common ground on fiscal issues and small government principles. GOP insiders say that might be what allows him to avoid a primary fight.
“Charlie Baker has earned the respect of a lot of Republicans who were wary of him on some of the social issues,’’ said Paul Ferro, a social conservative Republican activist who chairs the Marlborough GOP committee.