Governor Charlie Baker, seeking to draw the Massachusetts Republican Party closer to the ideological center as a presidential election approaches, has started backing candidates for the state GOP committee, imperiling conservative activists who have come to dominate the body.
The maneuvers once again pit Baker, a socially moderate Republican who supported abortion rights and same-sex marriage during last year's campaign, against his party's restive right flank.
If he succeeds in gaining a firmer grip on the party's official apparatus, Baker could fashion a role as kingmaker in the raucous Republican presidential primary: a moderate governor not officially aligned with any candidate, in position to dole out delegates at what some GOP strategists are saying could be a brokered convention.
Depicting his efforts as a matter of political gratitude, Baker said Thursday, "There are a bunch of people who are involved with this who, you know, did a lot of legwork and a lot of heavy lifting for me in both 2010 and 2014, and I feel obliged to return the favor."
But Baker's muscle-flexing in state Republican politics annoyed some conservative activists, who had been angered when he moved to the left in his successful race last year after a more ideologically conservative, but unsuccessful, bid against then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2010. The state GOP's right wing has fared better in electing members to the committee than it has in sending representatives to Beacon Hill, and some activists warned that Baker should stay out of intraparty contests.
"He's sticking his nose into the race, from what I can see, and he really should stay out of it," said Mary Lou Daxland of Westport, who sits on the committee and is president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, which bills itself as "the Republican wing of the Republican Party."
Daxland added, "There's a lot of people on the state committee that don't feel the governor is working in the best interests of the Republican Party."
Senior Baker adviser James Conroy, who managed his campaign last year against Democrat Martha Coakley, placed phone calls Tuesday to several committee hopefuls, apprising them that the governor would not be supporting their bids and would be providing political backing for others. That support, said people familiar with the calls, will likely include formal endorsements and possibly fund-raising and financial assistance.
One of the challengers whom Baker is supporting, Reed V. Hillman, was the party's nominee for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial nominee Kerry Healey in 2006. Hillman, a former State Police superintendent and state representative, is challenging state committeeman William J. Gillmeister, who helped craft some of the more conservative positions in the party platform in 2014.
"I decided to run for the seat long before the governor decided that he was going to make an effort to make sure that he has good people on the committee. So my interest predates his," Hillman said Thursday.
"I want to make sure that we nominate electable Republicans," he said.
Gillmeister declined to comment on Baker's role in his race.
Republican state committee members are elected by GOP primary voters. They will appear on the ballot March 1, the same day Republicans will cast their votes in the presidential primary. Two state party officials estimated on Thursday that there will likely be more than 150 candidates for the 80 seats, calling it more intense participation than usual. Nomination papers are not due until next Tuesday.
"You've got people who have been on the state committee for 25 years, and all of a sudden they have a challenger," Daxland said.
Baker said, "It's going to be very competitive, there's a lot of people running, and I think it's a real sign of excitement about the party and the party's prospects here in the Commonwealth."
After his unsuccessful challenge to Patrick in 2010, Baker adopted a significantly more moderate profile in last year's race. He faced a primary challenge from Tea Party-backed Mark Fisher but won over enough Republicans to survive the primary without significantly hamstringing his prospects against Coakley.
To pacify the small but energetic hard-right wing of the state GOP, Baker worked behind the scenes to mollify conservatives and tapped as his running mate Karyn Polito, a former state representative who has strong ties to conservative groups.
But Polito's subsequent embrace of Baker's position in favor of same-sex marriage helped sour some social conservatives on their party's standard-bearers.
The committee last year adopted a formal platform that signals opposition to abortion and declares support for "traditional marriage,'' putting it on the opposite side from Baker on both issues. Later, the body adopted a resolution seeking to force its leaders to hew to the policy positions embedded in the platform.
During an interview Thursday after an event at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Dorchester, Baker dismissed policy rifts between himself and his party's state committee.
"There's always going to be stuff in the platform. I've said before that, generally speaking, I agree with my party on some stuff, not so much on others. And it's a big tent, I accept that," he said.
Asked if he would try to alter the committee's official stance on same-sex marriage, which states that members "believe the institution of traditional marriage strengthens our society," Baker replied, "I'm not even thinking about that."
Since his election last November, Baker has declared publicly that he hopes to avoid national politics, particularly during a fractious Republican presidential primary among 15 candidates. But he has traveled to court GOP groups outside the state. And, in such a crowded nomination contest, control over hard-won delegates through the state committee could enhance Baker's standing as a national player in the party.
In 2016, said one adviser, Baker "hopes to elect a state committee that is more focused on winning elections and less focused on ideological battles."
Baker, Polito, and state party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes all said they were pleased with the intensity of activity around the state committee elections.
"I'm excited that so many people are running for state committee, and I think it speaks to the growth and the health of the party statewide," Hughes said.
Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.