Karyn E. Polito, the former Republican legislator who lost a 2010 run for state treasurer, is poised to announce her candidacy for lieutenant governor this week, a move that puts GOP gubernatorial favorite Charlie Baker in a difficult spot as he ponders a potential running mate.
Polito, a 47-year old Shrewsbury resident, is expected to declare as early as Tuesday that she will seek the nomination for the second spot on the 2014 gubernatorial ticket, according to several state Republicans with knowledge of her plans.
Baker is expected to lead the ticket, and Polito’s candidacy would pose a politically ticklish question for him: whether to try to control the makeup of his ticket, as he successfully did in his 2010 run for governor, or to leave the decision to voters.
Having Polito as a running mate could be both an asset and a potential liability.
She drew the highest vote of any Republican statewide candidate in 2010, and is known as an energetic campaigner and fund-raiser who could bring to the ticket wide-ranging electoral experience that few others in the state Republican Party can offer. She also hails from the central part of the state that has been the epicenter of conservative activism in Massachusetts in recent years.
But she could also burden the ticket with political baggage. During Polito’s 2010 campaign for state treasurer, the Globe reported that her influence appeared to help procure coveted low-number Red Sox commemorative license plates for her friends, family, and supporters ahead of other applicants. Polito had sponsored the 2002 bill that allowed the Red Sox to issue the plates through the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The low-number plates were so sought-after that when the Registry sold six plates at a charity auction, Ben Affleck paid $50,000 for the number 1.
Polito’s 2010 campaign also faced questions over her legislative efforts to get state funding for a new road near land that she and her family owned in Shrewsbury. The taxpayer-funded project very likely enhanced the value of the 60-acre parcel, real estate experts told the Globe.
Polito — who as a state representative cultivated an image as a critic of “the culture of self-interest and inside deals on Beacon Hill’’ — has denied any conflict in either the road deal or the Red Sox plates.
Baker, a longtime government and business leader, has a reputation as a clean-cut and creative public- and private-sector reformer and is hoping his reputation will attract strong bipartisan support.
Polito’s recent flirtation with Tea Party activists could also put a wrinkle in Baker’s attempts to promote a more moderate image than what he projected in his failed bid for governor in 2010. Baker has been trying not to alienate conservatives but it remains unclear what strategy he and his advisers will take in the face of Polito’s push to get on the ticket.
Baker’s campaign declined to comment on Polito’s expected campaign announcement.
“Charlie is focused on talking with voters across Massachusetts about his plans to create jobs, close the education gap, and foster safer, stronger communities, and has no announcement to make at this time,” said his campaign spokesman Tim Buckley.
Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected independently in Massachusetts, but ever since William F. Weld tapped Paul Cellucci for a running mate, many gubernatorial candidates have tried to choose or endorse candidates with complementary characteristics. Polito could run independently and become Baker’s running mate without an endorsement.
To qualify for the Republican ballot in the September primary election, each candidate must win the support of at least 15 percent of delegates at the Republican State Committee’s March 22 convention. It is not yet clear whether other Republican contenders for lieutenant governor will run. Former Romney aide Beth Lindstrom had been exploring a run, but she said on Friday that she had decided against it.
One Republican Party insider said that the Baker campaign has been cooperating with Polito behind the scenes but that Baker does not intend to publicly embrace her as a ticket-mate until he assesses her viability, having been stung by his last political marriage.
When he ran for governor in 2010, Baker turned off some conservatives by teaming up with Richard R. Tisei, an openly gay former state senator with a moderate voting record. He also alienated many voters — particularly women, who voted against Baker by 24 percentage points — with the outraged tone of his campaign, which seized upon Republican anger about scandals on Beacon Hill and frustration with the sputtering economy.
Aides said Baker wants to avoid a serious primary fight from the right wing of the party, and he cannot afford to alienate strongly conservative GOP activists and fund-raisers, many of whom would be drawn to Polito. Already, Baker faces a challenge for the gubernatorial nomination from political newcomer Mark Fisher, a business owner and social conservative who, like Polito, lives in Shrewsbury.
Polito did not return phone calls seeking comment. She has apparently been considering a candidacy for months. In July, someone launched a Facebook page called “Draft Karyn Polito for Lt. Governor 2014.” The page details Polito’s biography, from her immigrant great-grandfather to her annual Charity Golf Tournament, and shows photos of Polito with her children and other politicians.
Polito lost her 2010 race for treasurer to Steve Grossman, who is now a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. As recently as last year, she threatened to sue Grossman for defamation unless he removed online advertisements that alluded inaccurately to the Red Sox plate controversy.
As a legislator for 10 years, Polito was not viewed as especially conservative, even earning a perfect rating from an abortion rights group for her legislative votes. However, she repeatedly aligned with legislators trying to ban gay marriage in Massachusetts following the 2003 state Supreme Court ruling that legalized it.
Polito also served as campaign chair for Michael Sullivan, a strong social conservative, in this year’s special US Senate election.
Since leaving public office after the 2010 defeat, Polito has also worked to promote her ties with the GOP’s conservative right.
In August, a local Tea Party group promoted her Stoughton appearance at a fund-raiser with conservative standard-bearer and former Florida congressman Allen West. In accepting a special award, she praised the former US House member, a Tea Party hero, and took a swipe at the national Republican establishment.
“The Republican National Committee has no message. Colonel West has a good message,” Polito was quoted as saying on the Stoughton Patch website. “We are citizen patriots together. We need to get our country and our Commonwealth back.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie. Ebbert@globe.com.