Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker narrowly scraped together enough delegates at Saturday’s nominating convention to oust Tea Party rival Mark Fisher from the primary ballot, but the cramped margin virtually assured lingering intraparty friction.
Baker, a former health insurance executive and state budget chief who unsuccessfully challenged Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, piled up roughly 83 percent of delegates.
Yet he could still face further challenges, including civil litigation if Fisher challenges the scant shortfall that party officials said disqualified him from the primary.
Fisher, a Shrewsbury businessman, missed the 15 percent threshold by less than half a percentage point, party officials declared more than 90 minutes after initial results had been announced. Blank ballots accounted for the remaining 2.527 percent. About a half dozen more votes for Fisher — out of more than 2,500 cast — would have put him over 15 percent.
“He did not obtain 15 percent,” said party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes, adding, “14.765 is not 15 percent.”
If Fisher had reached the ballot, Baker would have been forced to spend months fending off a challenge from the right, restraining him from a full-throttled attack on Democrats, currently in their own five-way primary, and complicating his overall strategy.
That general election approach was clear in rhetoric Baker trained on the Patrick administration and Legislature during a speech appealing to delegates.
“We need leaders on Beacon Hill who understand that someone else’s sweat and effort produces every dollar they get to spend,” Baker said, hitting a sweet-spot criticism that the Democrat-run state government spends funds wastefully.
Before the tally was finalized, Baker insisted that he was not bothered by the potential for a contested primary and said it would not change his campaign. But party insiders and Baker advisers were visibly relieved with the outcome.
With tensions rising as the vote hung in limbo for some time Saturday evening, party officials sequestered themselves in a backstage “tally room,” while Boston University’s Agganis Arena emptied of the thousands of delegates.
Because Fisher did not make the ballot, Baker has access to state party funds he could have been denied in a two-man race under party bylaws.
Republican insiders disagreed about the net political impact for Baker of a one-man race.
“We must leave here a party united,” state Representative Matthew Beaton said in remarks supporting Baker.
Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Fisher’s removal from the race frees Baker of a potential nuisance, one that would have complicated his electioneering strategy before the Nov. 4 election.
“It’s one less distraction,” said Cunningham.
Former governor William F. Weld, a Baker adviser, countered that Baker would benefit from a primary that would have allowed him to draw a contrast with Fisher. Weld, calling himself one of the dissenters in the Baker camp, said he felt a primary fight would help Baker curry favor among independent voters.
“A primary allows people to see from the get-go that Charlie is a moderate,” Weld said before the balloting. “I don’t think a primary would [have] hurt in any way.”
But the convention battle could still spill over into the courts, with civil lawsuits possible that could undercut Baker’s intended storyline for months.
Fisher did not rule out litigation, saying, “We’ll see after today.”
The potential legal battle over ballot access could cause a rupture between the Republican party establishment and conservatives — a looming schism obvious on the convention floor after Saturday’s vote, with conservatives resentful of a process they said had been skewed for Baker.
“This is quite disappointing,” said Joelene Guzzo, 39, a first-time delegate from Wilbraham who was attending her first convention so she could support Fisher.
Calling the convention unfairly tilted in favor of Baker, Guzzo said, “I’m really upset with this whole rah-rah Baker fest. It’s very unfair to have conventions like this.”
In 2010, Baker succeeded, by a comfortable margin, in blocking convenience store magnate Christy Mihos from obtaining the requisite 15 percent at the convention.
In remarks after he accepted the endorsement on Saturday, Baker, sporting a purple tie, outlined a more activist-government approach to policies including health care, education, and economic development.
Baker reached out to independent voters, aligning himself with an ideologically moderate agenda.
He outlined a new direction on a host of issues, but his chief theme targeted the “one-party rule” that has characterized Beacon Hill for the last eight years.
Earlier, in a pre-vote appeal to the delegates that lacked the arm-waving energy of some of his previous speeches, Baker played to conservative hobby horses, mocking the state’s welfare and food stamp programs as riddled with “waste, fraud, and anecdotes.”
Baker downplayed hot-button social issues that divide the state party here from its national counterpart.
He supports abortion rights and gay marriage i is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, which puts him on the opposite side of the state Republican committee’s official platform on both issues.
Weld, Baker’s political mentor, said Baker and his running mate, Karyn Polito, would benefit from the relative sidelining of social matters.
“It’s a pleasure not to see those front and center,” said Weld.
Baker’s 2010 running mate, Richard Tisei, who is running for Congress this year, did not attend the convention in protest of the party’s official stance on social issues.
Republicans on Saturday also endorsed Hopkinton Selectman Brian Herr to challenge Democratic US Senator Edward J. Markey in November.
Malden City Councilor Dave D’Arcangelo secured the party’s nomination for secretary of state, corporate lawyer John Miller for attorney general, Wellesley businessman Mike Heffernan for treasurer, and nationally ranked distance swimmer Patricia Saint Aubin of Norfolk for auditor.
Beset by a long string of election losses, Bay State Republicans have not won a nonspecial statewide election since Mitt Romney’s successful bid for governor in 2002. Scott Brown won a Senate seat in a 2010 special election.
As a result, Republicans have come to view each successive election as one twilight struggle after another. Baker is their latest hope.
“If we don’t turn the party around soon, we won’t have a party to turn around,” said David Locke, the former Republican state Senate leader.