Quietly operating in the shadows of an intense race for governor, Massachusetts Republicans are on the verge of making significant gains in the state Legislature that could more than double their four-member Senate caucus and add well over a half-dozen House seats.
Much of the effort has been generated by three well-financed conservative groups, who, working outside of the Republican establishment, are using scorched-earth campaign tactics that are not only rattling Democrats but also, if successful, could threaten the current GOP leadership in the Legislature.
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which is led by Rick Green, a wealthy Republican state committeeman who has been challenging the party leadership over the last few years, has already spent about $300,000 attacking incumbent Democrats, most of whom are facing conservative and Tea Party candidates.
The Fiscal Alliance, which says its political activism does not violate its nonprofit status as an educational group, has flooded targeted districts with mailings that highlight legislators’ votes to raise taxes, support President Obama’s health care law, and back “benefits for illegal immigrants.”
Meanwhile, the Marlborough Republican City Committee has emerged as a center of power within the state GOP through its aggressive fund-raising among some of the party’s wealthy social conservatives.
The committee, which specializes in providing ground troops and money to GOP candidates around the state, has spent $147,000 so far this year in legislative campaigns to promote its agenda.
Another political group, Jobs First Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, created and mostly funded by Chris Egan, an heir to the EMC fortune, has spent $214,000 sending lacerating mailings out to constituents of Democratic House members facing tough reelection fights.
Whether significant gains — if they materialize — would mark a turning point for the state GOP is uncertain. Republicans, in the past, have seen their numbers rise in one election, only to fade away in the next.
The three groups, which some see as a counter to the slew of pro-Democratic union groups that go door-to-door and send direct mail in legislative districts, are providing critical support to the low-key, low-financed legislative campaign work of the state Republican Party, which is focusing most of its resources on the statewide races.
Their appearance in the legislative races has caught the Democrats flatfooted, sending them scrambling to counter the political assaults that began to appear in the wake of the September primary.
The efforts, however controversial, are giving Republicans a glimmer of hope of returning to relevancy at the State House. Republican lawmakers, while still not having enough votes in either branch to sustain a gubernatorial veto, would, for the first time in more than two decades, be able to forge coalitions and play significant roles on Beacon Hill, particularly if Republican Charlie Baker wins the gubernatorial election.
The party, which for nearly a hundred years dominated the Massachusetts Legislature, began a steady decline into political impotence in the 1960s. By 1974, the Democrats had won all the major state offices and expanded majorities in both the House and Senate.
The GOP claimed the governor’s office for 16 years, but the party’s ranks in the House and Senate sank to embarrassingly low numbers.
One bright, but brief, GOP resurgence came in the wake of the fiscal and political chaos of 1989 and 1990. Republican numbers in the Senate surged from 8 to 16 seats, giving the newly elected GOP governor, William F. Weld, enough votes to sustain his vetoes of Democratic initiatives, forcing legislative leaders to negotiate. Those gains were washed away in the 1992 elections, when they were reduced to a six-member caucus.
The Republicans did play a key role in the 1996 election of Democrat Thomas Finneran of Dorchester as House speaker. In a stunning move that outfoxed his Democratic opponent, Finneran cut a secret deal with the small GOP caucus, which agreed to throw their votes to him. It was enough to give him a majority to begin an eight-year reign as speaker. In exchange, he accommodated them on staffing issues and committee assignments.
In this year’s Senate races, the GOP is heavily favored to pick up two seats now held by Democrats — Senate President Therese Murray, who is retiring, and Richard T. Moore of Uxbridge — and are ahead or highly competitive in four others. If Baker were to win with a margin of 5 percentage points or more, GOP analysts are convinced that Republicans could gain control of 10 Senate districts in Tuesday’s election.
In House races, Democrats admit they could lose up to a dozen seats. Democrats currently hold 128 seats out of 160 in the House.
The potentially strong showings in the legislative races is also stirring some trepidation among the longstanding moderate-leaning Republican leadership in the House and Senate.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones of Reading, under fire from Tea Party insurgents, barely held onto his position after the 2012 election. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester faces a tough task if his caucus suddenly doubles. Both have smooth working relationships with the Democratic leadership.
A string of Republican victories would also empower the efforts by Green of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and others to take control of the state GOP from the so-called moderate establishment that has been running the party for years.
One Democratic state representative, Brian Mannal of Barnstable, announced last week he was seeking a criminal complaint against Jobs First. The PAC had sent a mailing to his constituents charging that Mannal, a criminal defense attorney, was trying to boost his law practice by filing a bill that would provide public counsel for indigent low-level sex offenders.
“Now he wants to use our tax dollars to pay defense lawyers like himself to help convicted sex offenders,’’ states the political mailer to his constituents by the Jobs First. “Brian Mannal is putting criminals and his own interests above families.”
Mannal calls the accusation absurd. “I have never handled a sex offender case. I am not qualified to handle such a case,’’ he said in an e-mail to some House colleagues.
A spokesman for the PAC, Andrew Goodrich, stood by the allegations, saying that the flier was referring to two bills by Mannal designed to “help sex offenders and make us less safe and our mail piece cites those facts.” He refused to provide any evidence that Mannal was trying to enrich himself.
The Fiscal Alliance’s mailings stop short of calling for a legislator’s defeat, but rather highlight Democrats’ voting record on a series of mostly fiscal issues. In one case, they are pilloried for what the group claims is “voting against the opportunity to give veterans public housing before illegal immigrants.” It points to a vote on a GOP amendment to a veterans bill that was ruled out of order by the House clerk.
Democrats say the group is clearly partisan and is working to elect Republicans in violation of IRS regulations requiring the nonprofit educational group to remain nonpartisan.
“It doesn’t require a long leap to connect Mass. Fiscal to Republican Party operations,’’ said state Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield, chairman of the Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign Committee. “All the incumbents who are targeted are Democrats. The way they have interpreted and manipulated the voting records is absolutely done for partisan gain.”
The Fiscal Alliance’s executive director, Paul Craney, defended the group’s involvement in legislative races, saying it is staying out of political campaigns as its nonprofit status requires, but is focused on educating voters on lawmakers’ records on fiscal issues.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Marlborough Republican City Committee and the number of Republican Senate seats in the Massachusetts Legislature in the early 1990s.