With state elections just six months away, Massachusetts Republican activists are engaged in a bitter clash over everything from the party’s leadership and its values to its odds of prevailing in a lawsuit that threatens to drain the party’s already strained resources and energy.
The rancor has yet to seriously threaten the party’s best prospect this year, Charlie Baker, who is running for governor. Objective analysts think Baker has good odds of beating a Democrat in the November gubernatorial race, though he may have to do it without a fully functioning party apparatus.
But other statewide GOP candidates are struggling to get signatures to qualify for election. With Tuesday’s deadline to submit signatures imminent, several candidates who are new to state politics and depending on the GOP for help are in danger of not qualifying for the September primary ballot, said a Republican operative with direct knowledge of the signature collection effort.
The leading cause of division is a lawsuit from a second gubernatorial hopeful who is disputing the vote that disqualified him as a primary challenger. The candidate, Mark Fisher, contends that he won the required number of votes at the party’s March convention, but was unfairly disqualified because the party failed to follow its own rules.
State committee members, worried that the case is giving the party a black eye, have started to lose faith in the party leadership’s ability to contain the damage, if not the suit itself. One group is circulating a petition calling for a meeting to discuss putting Fisher on the primary ballot. Another is demanding to know the cost of litigation, worrying that the legal dispute will drain the budget of funds needed in an election year.
GOP leaders further antagonized some state committee members last week with an aggressive maneuver to install a favored candidate — who was once an aide to former US senator Scott Brown — in a vacant Boston committee seat that could determine control of the party. Activists complained that the quickly scheduled caucus prevented them from getting out their supporters. Officials said they adhered to bylaws.
For party critics, the raft of problems is a signal of mismanagement by an old guard determined to maintain its grip on power.
“We elect these people to be stewards of the party, but too often when they act, they bring disdain and dishonor to the party,’’ said Steve Aylward, a state committee member who leads one dissident faction. “I am really disappointed in our leaders. I am tired of it, and it has to stop.”
GOP leaders counter that many of their critics are social conservatives who are trying to hijack the party to steer policy in their direction.
“They’re employing a strategy to try to bring the Republican Party to the ground in order to rebuild it in a fashion that is more consistent with their social positions,’’ said a Republican Party official. “This is just another shootout in the lifeboat.”
The discord reflects a fractious battle that will determine whether the political organization continues to be run by moderate and long-established leadership or falls under the control of socially conservative and libertarian forces. The 80-member elected state committee is almost evenly divided between those two factions.
Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes has been barely holding back a hostile coalition always threatening to oust her. A onetime finance aide to Brown, Hughes was elected just last year in a narrow and hotly contested vote. With arm-twisting from Brown, Hughes managed to beat Rick Green, a leader in the state committee’s conservative wing, but she faced backlash when Brown almost immediately decided not to run again.
Hughes acknowledges the battles within the GOP, blaming them on activists who raise contentious issues and pounce on party missteps, but she denies that the fights are bogging down the party.
“Leadership is tough, and you have to make decisions that are best for the organization and not everyone is going to agree,” Hughes said.
“People are going to gin up support against me on issues that are contentious,’’ Hughes said. “That’s OK, but it is about doing the best for . . . the party and doing what is best for the ticket.”
Green rejects the charge that he or others are trying to oust Hughes and bring down the party establishment. He said his only strong disagreement with the leadership is its decision to fight Fisher’s legal attempts to get on the ballot.
“This is nothing but the normal disagreements that happen in parties,” he said. “I am not trying to get rid of Hughes or have axes to grind.”
The Suffolk Superior Court judge hearing the case has so far been sympathetic to Fisher’s case, allowing the suit to move forward and expediting a trial for June.
Meanwhile, with legal bills mounting, even some of Baker’s ardent supporters in party leadership ranks are calling on Hughes and her team to put Fisher on the ballot.
“I don’t think the rules were followed precisely,’’ said Stephen Zykofsky, a strong Baker supporter who is also a veteran state committeeman and an authority on party rules. “You have to follow the rules, and, from what I saw, Mr. Fisher received more than 15 percent of the vote.”
But Hughes argued that the party followed procedure.
“It really angers me, because we did nothing wrong,” she said. “Nothing happened in any smoke-filled rooms.”
Separately, another Republican volunteer filed an anonymous complaint with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, alleging that a paid GOP staff member had been working directly for Baker’s campaign for months, when he still faced a challenge from Fisher. The party’s bylaws prohibit the GOP from helping a particular candidate if another Republican is in the race.
The complainant, who spoke with the Globe but refused to identify himself, said that he was motivated by a sense of fairness for Fisher, rather than by an allegiance to him.
“If you’re unfair, people rally to an underdog,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you agree with him or not.”
His complaint to the Political Finance Office indicate that the GOP aide, Ryan Coleman, was paid by the state party’s federal account since last fall. But e-mails included in the complaint show that Coleman had a Baker campaign e-mail address, a phone line at Baker headquarters, and held the official title of political director.
Baker campaign manager Jim Conroy maintained that Coleman had been working for the campaign only as a contractor before Baker became the party nominee in March. “Ryan Coleman has worked for the campaign first as a contractor and later as an employee,” Conroy said. “His engagement with the campaign has been transparent and publicly reported, as is the case with all campaign expenditures.”
The Baker campaign, however, shows no payments to Coleman as a contractor when he was being paid by the state party.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.