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Adrian Walker

Fisher’s ballot fight exposes GOP haplessness

Not all that long ago, Massachusetts was a bona fide two-party state.

Not only did the state have four consecutive Republican governors, the GOP occasionally won other statewide races as well.

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Somehow it has now become the party twisted up in knots over somebody named Mark Fisher, who is challenging Charlie Baker to be the party’s nominee for governor.

On the off chance that you have been busy cheering on the Bruins while this circus has unfolded, allow me to summarize.

Nearly two months ago, the Republicans held their state convention, at which Fisher had to garner 15 percent of the delegates’ votes to make it onto the September primary ballot. After what have been described as lengthy closed-door meetings, party officials said he had fallen just short of the needed support. At that point, they did not announce an actual tally.

Longtime observers — of which there were many present — immediately smelled something foul. Fisher apparently fell short of the 15 percent threshold only if blank ballots were counted in the total, even though blanks don’t count. Not only that, there were an unusually high number of them, raising the question of why someone would spend a lovely Saturday afternoon at a convention and then decline to vote on the only matter of any consequence being decided. The more party officials explained Fisher’s failure, the less sense it made.

Then, last week, party officials said in a letter that Fisher asked for $1 million to drop a lawsuit he had filed to get on the ballot. Fisher has vehemently denied seeking a payoff, though he is seeking legal fees and damages from the party. If the Fisher-sought-a-payoff story was meant to run him off, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Friday, the GOP agreed to place Fisher on the primary ballot. His lawsuit against the party is still pending, with the party pushing hard against releasing any paperwork from the convention.

It’s hard to understand how the Republicans have managed to turn the obscure Fisher into a headline. He is a Tea Party candidate in a non-Tea Party state with very little visible support. In no plausible scenario could he seriously challenge Baker, the longtime party darling and 2010 candidate. I suppose Baker will have to debate him now, but Baker should welcome standing on stage with a man whose core political beliefs are rejected by almost all Massachusetts voters.

The fight over Fisher’s place on the ballot has obscured the party’s other problems, including an unimpressive bank account, and a failure to recruit candidates for down-ballot races. At this point they have little organization, and nothing other than Baker to draw their voters, such as they are, to the polls. Does this sound like the path to victory?

Some analysts have declared that none of this is likely to have much effect on Baker’s November general election chances, which they regard as solid. We’ll see about that. While I consider the former Weld budget chief one of the smartest and most effective officials I’ve ever met in state government, the fact remains that he has been a consistently overestimated candidate. Many of the same analysts expected Baker to glide to victory four years ago, when he ended up with just 42 percent of the vote.

Now it is true that, at least at this early stage, the Democratic field isn’t wowing voters either. But surely boredom is preferable to internecine warfare.

The Republicans used to have a formula: Cobble together a coalition of disaffected moderate Democrats and open-minded unenrolled voters and the Democratic machine of the 1990s could be rendered vulnerable. The new playbook seems to rely on hoping no one notices that you can’t run a convention, or recruit candidates, or rally behind one. Republicans contend that this race is easier for Baker because he doesn’t have to beat anyone with the charisma of Deval Patrick. True enough. But they may have underestimated their ability to beat themselves.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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