NATICK — Kirsten Hughes, backed by former US senator Scott Brown to lead the Massachusetts Republican Party through the upcoming election cycle, was voted state party chairwoman Thursday night in a contest so narrow that it briefly appeared to be a tie.
Hughes, a former campaign aide to Brown, beat Rick Green, a Pepperell conservative who had galvanized activists with his anti-establishment appeal and pledge to grow party membership from the grass roots.
The contentious fight over leadership had further divided the state’s minority party, which is still reeling from its losses in November and is preparing for an upcoming special election to fill John F. Kerry’s seat in the US Senate. Many thought that a loss for Brown’s candidate would leave him looking weak as he potentially positions himself for another political move.
The chairman will control allocation of more than $400,000 the party has remaining in its federal account, said treasurer Brent Andersen.
Hughes was elected by the 80-member Republican State Committee with a 41-to-39 vote, on a second ballot, after the results of the first election were contested and then set aside.
“I am ready to head to Merrimac Street [the GOP headquarters in Boston] tomorrow morning to get to work without delay,” she said. “How we do in these special elections will have a direct impact on our ability to motivate the grass roots and raise funds for the 2014 cycle and beyond.”
Hughes added, after the vote, “We’re all going to work together. That’s what our job is, to beat Democrats, not to beat each other up.”
In a show of unity, Green himself announced the chairman results.
“The eyes of the state are upon us,” Green said. “I would like everyone to join me in congratulating Kirsten Hughes as our next chairman.”
Until then, the mood was decidedly divisive, with Green’s supporters doubting the rulings made by the party attorney and parliamentarian when counting ballots.
In the first ballot count, Hughes won by one vote. But when a committee member loudly questioned the results, outgoing chairman Robert A. Maginn Jr. acknowledged that one ballot had been thrown out because it showed Green’s initials, not his full name, which could have led to a tie.
That created deep skepticism within the crowd of Green’s supporters, who viewed Hughes, a former party staff member, as part of the establishment.
“The minority party has to be the party of transparency,” said Brookline state committeewoman Lisa Barstow. “This is really bad politics.”
The second round of balloting gave Hughes the win and included votes from two members who had cast blank ballots the first time.
The contentious campaign and messy vote had many Republicans in the room shaking their heads. But several speakers made pleas for unity, and one elicited an agreement from both Hughes and Green that whoever lost would work for the other.
Former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who once served as party chairwoman, reminded the group of the battles fought in her time. “It’s very important for this group to know that this is not unusual,” she said. “This happens every time. We pull together.”
But the mood was tense, and the campaigns bitterly divided. Outside the hotel, before the meeting, one passerby looked severely at the supporters holding signs for Hughes and said, “If you want to lose, vote for Hughes.”
In introducing Hughes, state committeewoman Christine Cedrone emphasized that she is a “lifelong Republican” — a seeming reference to Green, who was previously unenrolled — and said pointedly, “She has also not played dirty in this campaign.”
In her remarks to committee members before the vote, Hughes, 35, emphasized her experience on all aspects of campaigns, as a volunteer, a campaign aide, and as a candidate herself.
A Quincy city councilor who previously worked for the state party, she said that as deputy finance chairman for Brown’s campaign she helped him raise $42 million.
She also called for Republicans to mobilize immediately, poining to the special elections coming up for Senate and the Legislature.
With a nod to the 2012 election losses, Hughes said, “It is vital our party talk together to figure out how we may move forward and become stronger, and that means understanding and acknowledging where we have fallen short.
“As chairman, I will never apologize — hear me now — for being a Republican,” Hughes said. “I will proudly advance our Republican ideals of smaller government and fiscal conservatism.”
The intense battle for the leadership position is unusual for the Massachusetts GOP, which has had a hard time filling the often thankless job.
Former US representative Peter Torkildsen accepted the post in 2007, but stepped down two years later. Jennifer Nassour served as chairwoman, without pay, from 2009 until the end of 2011, when Romney loyalist Maginn took over.
Conversely, the Massachusetts Democratic Party has had the same chairman since 2007: John Walsh, who managed Governor Deval Patrick’s first campaign.