When Massachusetts Republicans gather to nominate candidates for statewide office at their convention this weekend, one of the party’s leading contenders won’t be there.
Congressional candidate Richard R. Tisei, the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor four years ago, is sitting out the convention to protest the socially conservative platform that state committee members embraced last month.
“I don’t want to go and be seen in any way to be endorsing that,” said Tisei, who is gay and who got married last summer. “I don’t really feel comfortable being at a convention where the platform takes the party backward, rather than forward, as far as appealing to a large group of Massachusetts voters.”
The platform that was overwhelmingly approved by state committee members frowns on abortion and gay marriage, social issues that the GOP in Massachusetts had previously avoided addressing, for fear of alienating the state’s many liberal and libertarian-minded voters.
Charlie Baker, the party’s leading candidate for governor who chose Tisei as his running mate four years ago, also supports gay marriage and abortion rights. But he did not get involved in the platform debate last month, in part because he has been trying to enlist the support of social conservatives in his second campaign for office.
Republican candidates must walk a fine line in Massachusetts, trying to appeal to conservatives, often the loudest and most active volunteers in an election, as well as independents who make up the majority of voters and are often turned off by any whiff of moralizing. Democrats are quick to link Massachusetts Republicans to their party’s most extreme and unpopular national figures, no matter how implausible the association. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren unseated independent-minded US Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, in part by trying to tie him to the so-called “war on women.”
When Tisei unsuccessfully challenged US Representative John Tierney in 2012, he was caricatured by national Democrats as “Tea Party Tisei,” despite his moderate views. The day he announced he would again challenge Tierney this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee resumed its line of attack with an online ad accusing Tisei of a “radical crusade.”
“I don’t blame him for not wanting to give any opportunity to his opponents to put his name in any kind of contentious light,” said Kirsten Hughes, Massachusetts Republican Party chairwoman. “Democrats are never satisfied with what we’re doing. Why give them any opportunity to target him?”
She also noted that Tisei does not need to attend the convention. Unlike statewide candidates, who need the support of at least 15 percent of delegates at Saturday’s nominating convention to make the September ballot, he does not face a delegate vote.
Tisei said he has been attending conventions since 1982, and he was elected a delegate again this year.
Conservatives who have long urged the party to acknowledge and ratify their views on gay marriage said Tisei is free to boycott.
“If he doesn’t want to be associated with the party, then that’s his choice,” said Steve Aylward, a state committee member who voted for the platform. But, he said he found Tisei’s decision “surprising for someone who’s always talking about inclusion.”
“I don’t understand why he would avoid the convention if that’s his true belief,” Aylward said. “It raises the question if he wants only inclusive people that agree with him. You can’t be inclusive and exclude.”
Social conservatives who lost the battle against gay marriage on Beacon Hill have grown increasingly organized and influential within the MassGOP, proving themselves able to fill the gap in leadership that emerged in the party.
Last spring, Massachusetts Republicans elected as National Committeewoman Chanel Prunier, executive director of the Coalition for Marriage and Family, an organization that opposed gay marriage. Baker’s campaign has tried to appease Prunier and other conservative activists, in part by selecting as a running mate a candidate said to be their favorite: former state representative Karyn Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican who was a stalwart in the fight against gay marriage, though she backs abortion rights.
Baker’s spokesman declined to make Baker available or to discuss why he steered clear of the platform debate: “Charlie’s position is clear. Charlie is pro-choice and respects a woman’s right to make decisions about her medical care. Charlie is and has always been a strong supporter of marriage equality.”
In an interview this week, Tisei was careful not to criticize Baker, saying he knows Baker shares his views and policies.
“I wish Charlie the best, and I think he would be a great governor,” Tisei said. “I see eye to eye with him on all these issues.”
Tisei also spoke out against his party last Saturday in a speech at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, where he called for Republicans to promote personal freedoms, including gay marriage.
“We’ll never be a 21st century party if our platform’s stuck in the 19th century,” he said.
Going into this year’s election, Tierney, who only beat Tisei by 1 percentage point in 2012, is still viewed as vulnerable and faces challenges from within his own party, while Tisei is seen as one of the GOP’s strongest contenders.
“[Tisei] has my full support as well as the full support of the party, said Hughes, who also opposed the platform. “He’s one of our great hopes for ’14.”