Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker scarcely scraped together enough delegates at Saturday’s nominating convention to appear alone on September’s primary ballot, but Tea Party rival Mark Fisher came close enough to qualifying that intraparty friction seems likely.
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 razor-thin margin by which he failed to garner enough votes.
Fisher, a Shrewsbury businessman, missed the 15 percent threshold by less than half a percentage point, party officials said 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, preventing from unleashing a full-throttled attack on Democrats and complicating his overall election strategy.
That general election approach was in evidence on Saturday as Baker trained rhetoric on the Patrick administration and Legislature in 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 wastefully.
Before the tally was finalized, Baker insisted to reporters that he was not bothered by the potential for a contested primary, and said it would not change his campaigns tactics. But party insiders and Baker advisers were visibly relieved with the outcome.
With the vote 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.
Under party bylaws, if both candidates appear on the ballot, neither would have access to state party funds until after the primary, unless the party’s executive committee decides by a two-thirds vote to award the money to one candidate.
There was disagreement Saturday among Republican insiders and advisers about the net political impact for Baker of a one-man ballot.
Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at 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, now a Baker adviser, disagreed, saying he thought the GOP candidate 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.
As party officials tabulated the vote, Fisher said he was optimistic he would land on the ballot.
Fisher, however, did not rule out litigation.
“We’ll see after today,” he said.
The potential legal battle over ballot access could cause a rupture between the Republican party establishment and conservatives -- a fight that was 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 Joelenecq 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 and disrespectful to his competitor, 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, blocking convenience-store magnate Christy Mihos from obtaining the requisite 15 percent at the convention.
In remarks delivered 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.
But earlier, in a pre-vote appeal to delegates that lacked some of 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.”
Later, after accepting the party endorsement, Baker reached out to independent voters, aligning himself with an ideologically moderate agenda.
He outlined a new direction on a host of issues, including largely activist-government approaches to health care, education, economic development, and government reform. But his chief theme targeted the “one-party rule” that has marked Beacon Hill for the last eight years.
Baker avoided entirely any mention of the hot-button social issues that divide the state party here from its national counterpart. He is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, which pits him on the opposite side of the state Republican committee’s official platform on both issues.
Weld, Baker’s political mentor, said Baker and 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 non-special statewide election since Romney’s 2002 victory. 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.