Metro

Baker taps wealthy donors in bid to shape Mass. GOP

Governor Charlie Baker unveiled his state budget proposal in January.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Governor Charlie Baker unveiled his state budget proposal in January.

Governor Charlie Baker has been collecting significant money from unidentified donors to finance his campaign aimed at blocking the conservative wing of the GOP from controlling the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Since January, Baker has hit up wealthy donors, mostly at several small dinners, to finance a slate of 52 candidates for the party’s 80-member state committee in elections that will be decided on March 1.

But the governor and his political advisers, citing campaign finance laws that exempt their activities from public scrutiny, are adamant that they will not release names of the contributors who have helped him finance the campaign.

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Baker political adviser Jim Conroy confirmed the governor and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito have been raising funds for his campaign to control the party apparatus, but said the law does not require public filings with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for this sort of campaign.

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“Nobody reports this. Nobody. No one has ever reported it. Ever. In any of these races, ever,” Baker said in an interview.

State campaign finance regulators agree, saying Baker has the legal right to keep his fund-raising hidden from public view because it is for intraparty contests, rather than for public office. 

“Raising and spending money for a state committee office campaign is not regulated, even if an elected official raises money for that purpose,” said Jason Tait, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.  

Still, the fact the governor is raising large sums of money from individuals or even corporations without any public accounting has caught the eye of campaign finance watchdogs. 

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 Common Cause of Massachusetts said it is concerning that the fund-raising loophole allows Baker to potentially hit up special interests and contractors with business before his administration without public disclosure. It is meeting this week “to determine what solutions, if any, would be appropriate,” according to the group’s executive director, Pam Wilmot. 

Although the donors to this effort are secret, the list of contributors to Baker’s election campaign committee and to the Baker-controlled Republican Party political accounts — accounts which by law are public — are replete with large donations from state contractors, developers, and special interests with business before his administration.

Wealthy donors have been asked to write checks for $10,000 or more to an entity created by the pro-Baker forces called the Fund For a New Majority, said two people familiar with the fund who would not speak publicly.

The money is deposited into a private bank account. So far, more than $300,000 has been raised, those people said.

Every four years, during the Massachusetts presidential primary, both Republicans and Democrats elect a woman and a man from each of 40 state Senate districts to serve on their parties’ state committees.

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Baker’s aggressive foray into the state committee elections is unprecedented, and he has found himself at war with a conservative coalition led by the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, which is backing a field of candidates for the now evenly divided state committee. 

Baker is using the money to pay for endorsement mailers to Republican voters across the state.

A typical one comes as a letter in a plain envelope marked with a return address of “Governor Charlie Baker, Post Office Box 5785, Boston Ma. 02114” and is signed “Charlie.”

Another mailing is a glossy, two-sided hard-stock card citing the candidate’s endorsement by Baker and Polito. The return address is the US post office at the State House: “FFNM, P.O. Box 183, Boston, 02133.”

 The card quotes Baker — who savors his close working relationship with the Democratic legislative leadership — asking, among other things, for support to “end the Democrat Culture of Corruption on Beacon Hill.”

In some cases, the governor is endorsing incumbents who face challengers from the right. In some cases, he is supporting challengers who are taking on conservative incumbents. In some cases, he is picking sides in contests for open seats.

Martin Lamb, a Holliston lawyer who is challenging longtime incumbent state committeeman Edward McGrath, said his home has received two mailings in the last week from both addresses, urging them to vote for McGrath.

Baker appointed McGrath to an $85,000-a-year state administrative job last year.

Lamb, who ran unsuccessfully as a GOP nominee for Congress in 2010 and state representative two years later, said his experience in campaigning tells him that a single mailing to GOP voters in a Senate district would cost $6,000 to $7,000. 

“I’m really shocked because my loyalty has been with them from day one,’’ said Lamb of Baker’s stepping into his district. Lamb said he went against his conservative allies in 2014 to back Baker in the GOP gubernatorial primary. “I am really surprised he jumped into this race.”

Mary Lou Daxland, an incumbent state committeewoman from Westport and president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, lashed out at Baker, charging that he has declared war on the conservative wing of the Massachusetts GOP.

The MRA, which also does not disclose its financial information, is backing a slate of 25 incumbents and challengers. She said her house received three mailings in the last week from Baker and Polito soliciting votes for her opponent. 

Elections for party committee seats typically draw little attention. The governor’s involvement and the combative nature of this year’s elections are unusual. 

Baker’s concern, according to GOP insiders who are supporting his efforts, is that moderate Republicans need to project a moderate image, particularly in a largely Democratic state, and not allow the GOP to be seen as a party that’s dominated by Tea Party factions and social conservative activists.

But just as important, the battle will decide whether the governor can continue to control the state GOP apparatus, including its staffing, its resources, and its aggressive fund-raising infrastructure — all of which are critical to his reelection in 2018.

Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.