Social conservative activists are threatening to walk away from Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker after his running mate, former state representative Karyn E. Polito, reversed her position this week, endorsing gay marriage.
According to state Republican Party insiders, some of Polito’s closest allies in the battle against gay marriage are pressing the former Shrewsbury lawmaker to dial back her new stance on the issue or risk losing their support.
“I know they are meeting today and trying to work it out,’’ said a Republican Party leader who is a strong backer of Baker’s candidacy.
The Baker campaign, looking to placate social conservatives, said late Thursday that Polito considers same sex unions to be accepted law. But the campaign would not make Polito available to be interviewed about her position.
“Karyn supported civil unions at a time when most Republicans did not,’’ said Tim Buckley, Baker’s campaign spokesman. “Like many, including President Obama, Karyn's position has evolved, and she now supports the existing law and will not work to undo the progress achieved over the last decade.”
The statement, with implicit appeals to both conservatives and moderates, lays bare the hurdles confronting a Republican ticket running statewide in Massachusetts. To win, Baker and Polito must peel off moderate independent voters, who make up the state’s largest voting bloc, and Democrats.
But he also faces pressure from the right, where Mark Fisher, a political newcomer and Shrewsbury businessman who is Baker’s only GOP challenger so far, has sought support from social conservatives.
In a followup statement Thursday, the campaign responded to questions about how it intends to deal with the conservative dissatisfaction: “Over the course of the campaign, Charlie and Karyn hope to earn the support of voters across the political spectrum in Massachusetts. While not everyone is going to agree with them on every issue, we’re confident that by focusing on policies that create jobs, improve our education system, and build stronger, safer communities, we’ll be successful.”
According to a GOP insider, in choosing Polito, Baker strategists insisted that she soften her opposition to gay marriage if she were to join the ticket. The compromise — which would blunt some of the criticisms that she was flip-flopping — was for Polito to state that gay marriage is settled law and that she would not do anything to undo it.
That is the model Mitt Romney used in his 2002 campaign for governor on the issue of abortion. When he ran in 1994 for the US Senate against Edward M. Kennedy, he described himself as “personally opposed” to abortion, but promised not to challenge existing abortion law.
The issue quickly came to a head after Baker and Polito appeared at a Shrewsbury diner to announce their ticket on Tuesday. A Globe reporter then inquired of a Baker campaign aide about Polito's position on gay marriage. The aide, who did not want to be quoted, replied that Polito favored the current gay marriage law.
In an e-mail exchange, the Globe asked whether it would be fair to say she favored gay marriage, and the aide replied that it would. That exchange was reflected in a Globe article Wednesday.
That clear-cut declaration eliminated the carefully designed nuance and set off a firestorm within social conservative circles, where Polito has been very popular.
Conservative activists, who oppose Baker’s socially liberal views on gay marriage and abortion, had been ready to support him for his fiscal conservatism and out of a desire to wrest control of the corner office from Democrats.
According to GOP leaders, demands for a retraction stemmed in part from Chanel Prunier, executive director of the Coalition for Marriage and Family and a close political ally of Polito. She was elected the state party’s national committeewoman earlier this year and has served as a reminder to moderate Republicans of the party’s conservative base.
A GOP leader with strong social conservative leanings said Thursday that party conservatives are now trying to pressure their ideological colleagues to back Fisher.
Baker has struggled to appease social conservatives before. During his 2010 campaign, he faced controversy after choosing Senate minority leader Richard Tisei – a gay, Republican who supports abortion rights – as his running mate.
At the state GOP convention that year, Baker circulated a flier to delegates stating that he would veto a transgender rights bill, cosponsored by Tisei, outlawing discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression.” In the flier, Baker adopted the language of the measure’s critics, calling it the “bathroom bill.”
Later, standing alongside Tisei at a press conference, Baker said that his campaign’s flier was not an effort to lure social conservatives.
“I think a guy who supports gay marriage and is prochoice and has been pretty clear on those and picked a gay fella as his running mate is pretty much not pandering to much of anybody,’’ he said, placing a hand on Tisei's shoulder.
Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @josreports.