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McCormick fails to catch fire, dimming spoiler hopes

Independent far back in the polls

Jeff McCormick remains in single-digit numbers in the polls, and two high-profile strategists have fled his campaign. He has spent $927,000 of his own money.

Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe

Jeff McCormick remains in single-digit numbers in the polls, and two high-profile strategists have fled his campaign. He has spent $927,000 of his own money.

When Jeff McCormick gathered some 100 close friends and associates at a dinner at Park Plaza Hotel in Boston late last year, the room was filled with optimism that he had the potential to be a serious independent option for governor, an alternative to a tired, old party system.

Now more than nine months later and just over two months until the election, McCormick, 52, a wealthy venture capitalist with no political experience, has hardly made a blip on the campaign trail.

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He is stuck in single-digit numbers in the polls, two high-profile strategists have fled the campaign, and his fund-raising is anemic. The thinly staffed campaign has no grass-roots organization. On top of that, voter anger at partisan party politics in Massachusetts — a central issue for McCormick’s candidacy — does not appear to be a serious factor in this year’s election.

His struggles have the political world reassessing his potential impact in November. Even if he does not develop into a major candidate, some political analysts contend, McCormick could still siphon critical votes from the GOP’s endorsed candidate, Charlie Baker.

So far, however, the potential spoiler has not been doing much spoiling.

“I don’t know what to make of it,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, an associate political science professor at Stonehill College. “Given his wealth and the consultants he brought on board, there seemed to be a real a possibility he could be significant, but it is now very late in the season to ignite a movement.’’

A veteran media strategist who left the McCormick campaign in frustration last spring agrees. “His campaign had a lot of potential, but it has not been able to deliver on it,’’ said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant with decades of experience in Massachusetts politics. “It is very, very late. Barring some significant developments, the situation is dire.’’

‘His campaign had a lot of potential, but it has not been able to deliver on it. It is very, very late. ’

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McCormick, a Boston resident and the founder of Saturn Partners, has spent more than $900,000 of his own money since he began running last year. Yet according to a weekly Boston Globe poll, he has captured just 5 to 6 percent of voter support, depending on whom he would face in a general election race for governor.

Even $100,000 worth of television and social media ads earlier this summer failed to jump-start his candidacy or significantly move his poll numbers.

McCormick and his campaign aides — including former GOP state treasurer Joseph Malone, who bolted the party recently and registered as an independent — bristle at the notion that the campaign has failed to get off the ground, even though it has raised just a little more than $100,000 from donors, a paltry amount for a statewide candidate at this stage.

They say that the game plan all along has called for the candidate to emerge after the Sept. 9 party primaries with a heavy advertising blitz that will capture the attention of an electorate when it will be more tuned into politics. One of three independent candidates, McCormick is not required to participate in a September primary.

“We believe that people will be focused after the primaries,’’ McCormick said in a recent interview. He declined to say how much more he plans to draw on his own wealth to help project the message that he will bring a fresh perspective and approach to Beacon Hill. “I will pass on that,’’ he said when asked.

His message, McCormick said, will emphasize that he brings new ideas and perspectives to major policy areas — health care, energy, and education. He said he will also sell himself as a candidate whose career as a venture capitalist investing in startups demonstrates that he knows how to create jobs and nurture economic growth.

To become a major player in this race, McCormick faces two significant hurdles: a battle to stand out as the marquee independent candidate against another wealthy, self-financed nonaligned candidate, Evan Falchuk; and a potential targeting by the Republican Governors Association, which sees McCormick as a threat to Baker and could seek to destroy his candidacy with a blizzard of attack ads.

Falchuk, who has put in $1.1 million of his own money into his campaign and seems willing to spend more, offers much of the same political profile as McCormick and is competing for the same electoral turf. One advantage for Falchuk is that he has another purpose in running: He wants to create an official third party, the United Independent Party. That requires him to garner more than 3 percent of the vote in November and may help him attract last-minute support. His current poll numbers hover around 2 percent.

But just as troubling for McCormick is the Republican Governors Association, which is poised to come into Massachusetts with deep pockets and aggressive tactics. Analysts said his chance to blunt that punch with a strong advertising campaign of his own may have passed at this point.

“It is hard even under good circumstances; there is just not a lot of time,’’ said Ubertaccio.

The Republican Governors Association proved in 2010 it can drive an independent candidate out of contention. With $2 million worth of attack ads, it played a major role in the collapse of then-state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill’s independent candidacy. Once a major challenger to Deval Patrick and Baker, he ended up capturing just 8 percent of the vote.

McCormick said he expects to come under tough scrutiny in the final months. “I have gone into this election with my eyes wide open,’’ he said.

But he will need a sharp campaign staff to help fend off those attacks.

Late last fall, McCormick, emerging publicly as a candidate, turned some heads among political insiders with his ability to attract a group of bipartisan consultants. Payne is well identified over the years for working for Democrats such as Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Barney Frank. Veteran Republican strategist Todd Domke has been advising GOP candidates for more than three decades.

A year later, only Malone remains, getting $10,000 a month, as the candidate’s chief adviser. Payne and Domke, both getting $5,000 a month to advise McCormick, left last spring. Domke said he decided to depart the campaign because of a difference in strategy and not because of any problems with McCormick.

“We had strategic differences; there was no falling out with the candidate,’’ Domke said. He would not comment further.

Payne was more specific.

“There was no rationale, no budget, there was no communication strategy,’’ Payne said of his reasons for leaving. “The strategy seemed to be, let’s wait for lightning to strike.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.
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