Governor Charlie Baker is claiming victory in a tough fight with Tea Party-leaning conservatives for control of the Massachusetts Republican Party, a battle that threatens to create deep divisions between him and the GOP’s right-leaning bloc.
A source within Baker’s political team who is familiar with the results from Tuesday’s balloting for the Republican State Committee said 51 of 74 candidates endorsed by the governor won or retained seats on the 80-member governing body of the state party.
As the results trickled in Wednesday, conservative leaders seemed resigned to the fact that Baker had successfully put the full force of his political popularity and fund-raising skills behind his campaign to gain tighter control of what has been a committee evenly divided between moderates and conservatives.
If his numbers are correct, those results would be a huge political victory for Baker, who put his political prestige on the line when he waded into an ugly intra-party fight.
“The governor is pleased with last night’s results and grateful to everyone who ran, for their sacrifice and commitment to strengthening the party,’’ Baker’s chief political adviser, Jim Conroy, said Wednesday. “He looks forward to working with the new committee to help elect Republicans up and down the ticket.”
Chanel Prunier, the state’s Republican national committeewoman, noted that while the results indicate the state committee remains divided, “the most important task now is to put the contests behind us and look to the 2016 elections against the Democrats.”
Still, Baker’s gains appear to have come with a price. Some of the conservative activists had gone out on a political limb to back Baker in 2014, providing him with significant inroads into the grass-roots activist wing of the party.
But just a year after Baker took office, many of those same people found themselves targeted by him in the races for state committee.
One candidate who won his race despite Baker’s support for his opponent, expressed frustration with the governor’s team and warned of the backlash the governor may face.
“They started an unnecessary war within their own party, and I fear that that anger will never subside,” said Steven Aylward, who went against some of his colleagues to support Baker’s 2014 candidacy.
“And while they were waging that battle, we were losing two more special elections to the Democrats — the real enemy,’’ he said, noting the GOP losses in contested races for vacant House seats in Fitchburg and Peabody in Tuesday’s elections.
“I think what we have seen here is that while the Baker people might have deep pockets, they have no coattails for the party,” said Aylward.
The last Republican governor to face a revolt from the hard right was Francis W. Sargent, a liberal Republican who fought back a conservative primary challenge in 1974, only to lose the general election to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.
Baker’s move to bolster his control of the party is key to his continued use of its staff and resources — as well its aggressive fund-raising — for his own political operations. His political advisers, aware that the governor’s moderate image has helped to give him huge standings in the polls, also want to prevent the state GOP from being tagged as a hard-right conservative party.
To finance his campaign on behalf of his candidates for the state committee, Baker raised more than $300,000, the Globe reported last week.
But the identities of those donors and the size of their contributions are impossible for the public to track, because Baker has refused to make that information public — and has no legal obligation to do so, according to state campaign finance regulators, because the money supported candidates who were not running for public office.
His aides say a public disclosure of his donations — which the Globe has reported are as high as $10,000 apiece — would have put them at a disadvantage with the conservatives who also did not disclose their own fund-raising numbers.
At a press gathering last week, Baker continually resisted requests that he make the donations public, repeating several times that “We follow all the rules.”Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.