Just days before the Massachusetts Republican convention, pragmatism is overriding rigid ideology as rank-and-file Republicans from across the political spectrum rally behind gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker in a surge that some feel will clear the field of his Tea Party rival.
Baker, the 2010 nominee who lost to Governor Deval Patrick, is heavily favored to win the GOP convention endorsement Saturday, party veterans say. He is also expected to roll up a large enough number of delegates
to derail the candidacy of his only opponent, Mark Fisher, a Shrewsbury businessman who is favored by many Tea Party supporters. Fisher is running on a strong anti-
Beacon Hill platform.
Party rules require statewide candidates to capture 15 percent of the delegate votes at the Saturday convention in order to run in the September primary election.
“I don’t think Mark has the support for that 15 percent,’’ said Rob Eno, the publisher of Red Mass Group, a conservative blog.
Eno’s comment reflects the assessments of other conservative leaders who, while agreeing with Fisher’s right-leaning antigovernment positions, say that they are backing Baker. Despite his long experience on Beacon Hill running state agencies and his close alignment with the more moderate GOP establishment, Baker, they said, is a more realistic option.
Since his 2010 loss, Baker has worked the political corridors, backyard picnics, and other gatherings of GOP conservative enclaves. He has campaigned for their candidates and donated to their causes.
His argument that they share common ground around fiscal issues appears to have resonated. Within the Tea Party wing of the state party — among those who have strong feelings against abortion rights and same sex marriage — Baker, who supports abortion rights and legalization of same-sex marriage, has made gains.
“There is generally no discontent in the conservative community about his getting the nomination,’’ said one local activist, who describes himself as a friend and admirer of Fisher. The activist, who declined to be named, is backing Baker because he offers a more realistic chance for Republican victory.
Eno framed the issue in even stronger terms: “Because [Baker] has worked the grass roots and been in the trenches helping Republican conservatives, the grass roots have come to love him.”
There are pragmatic reasons for that support, as well. Baker, with his fund-raising prowess and political campaign experience, is seen as the GOP’s best hope of recapturing the governor’s office, a victory that would help bring about some of the changes they seek in state government spending.
“They’ve grown to understand the stakes are so high for the Commonwealth that they’re backing someone who can win,’’ said Eno, noting that Baker’s courting of conservatives over the past four years has paid off.
One measure of a candidate’s overall strength is his or her fund-raising ability. Fisher has raised $5,000 from individual donors, while Baker has pulled in $1.37 million in contributions.
Fisher’s campaign manager, Debbie McCarthy, disputes the predictions that he will fall short of the 15 percent hurdle. But she acknowledges it will be a tough fight to clear it. She said much depends on persuading Fisher supporters to get to the convention in Boston. Some 2,000 delegates are expected to show up at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
“We are in a fight to get our 15 percent,’’ she said, describing how she appeals to supporters. “I tell them every vote counts for Mark and it is going to be very tight.’’
The Baker campaign declined to comment on the increasing chatter in GOP circles that Fisher will not qualify for the ballot. “We don’t get into forecasting these things,’’ said Tim Buckley, Baker’s spokesman. “But whether there is a primary or not, it doesn’t change our game plan.”
All indications, however, point to a campaign intent on winning the endorsement by a margin large enough that it ends Fisher’s candidacy.
If Fisher falls short, it would mark the second time Baker has succeeded in building bridges with conservatives to push a GOP rival out of the primary race. In 2010, he got 89 percent of delegate support, a margin that kept Christy Mihos off the ballot.
In a replay of four years ago, Baker’s staff has dismissed arguments that a competitive primary would give his candidacy a good platform this spring and summer to burnish his appeal to middle-of-the-road Democrats and independents, by contrasting himself with a candidate further to the right.
A strong primary victory would also allow him to hit the ground running for the general election, momentum he did not have four years ago.
One example of Baker’s outreach to conservatives can be seen in his $3,000 contribution to the Marlborough Republican City Committee. The committee has become something of an epicenter of GOP social conservatism in Massachusetts by raising huge sums of money for socially conservative candidates around the state.
Using a loophole in the state campaign finance laws that allows for $5,000 donations per year to town and city party committees, the group has emerged as a powerhouse in Massachusetts Republican politics, despite operating outside the state party structure.
No other local committee, Democrat or Republican, has used that section of the law to develop such substantial political influence, according to campaign finance experts and a review of donation records.
Baker’s November 2012 donation, the largest he has given to any state GOP committee, was a show of support for the conservative cause that did not go unnoticed by party activists.
The committee raised $164,394 that year, almost equal to the $188,322 taken in by the Republican State Committee in the same period.Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.