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Baker plan for GOP stirs defiance

Contests forming for key party posts

Massachusetts Republican Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes has been endorsed for a second term by governor-elect Charlie Baker.
Massachusetts Republican Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes has been endorsed for a second term by governor-elect Charlie Baker.Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe/File 2013

Governor-elect Charlie Baker’s move to take control of the Massachusetts Republican Party is quickly bogging him down in internal party squabbles, as members of a bristling conservative caucus are refusing to accept what they believe is his heavy-handed strategy to dictate the GOP leadership team.

Two prominent state committee members, who have been quietly campaigning to become party chair, said Tuesday they will not back down and will challenge Baker’s endorsement Monday of Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes for a second term.

Baker also is pushing to make his campaign’s 24-year-old voter data specialist, Brian Wynne, the new executive director and his campaign manager, Jim Conroy, a consultant to the party.

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State Committeeman Steve Aylward, who organized the successful state ballot question that wiped out the indexed gasoline-tax hike, and Chanel Prunier, the party’s national committeewoman and an opponent of gay marriage and abortion, confirmed Tuesday they will continue their attempts to dislodge Hughes.

In addition, another state committeeman, Rick Green, a wealthy Pepperell businessman who lost to Hughes two years ago by one vote on the 80-member committee, has not indicated he is dropping his efforts to unseat her. He did not respond to requests for comment.

This burst of intra-party fighting — nothing new to the Massachusetts GOP — comes a week after Baker’s narrow victory restored Republican control of the governor’s office. On Monday, he sent out an e-mail to state committee members praising Hughes, while Republican aides close to him confirmed that he will support Hughes’s reelection at the party meeting in January, when the next two-year term for party chair is up for grabs.

Baker was not backing down Tuesday in the face of the conservative uprising. But he also tried to signal that he would not play a strong role in deciding the next chair.

“The governor-elect respects the committee’s process and will let that process play out,’’ said Conroy. “Given the significant successes achieved this election cycle, Charlie is confident that there will be strong support for Kirsten to continue to lead the party.”

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Those opposed to Hughes and her team — which includes fund-raiser John Cook, a close Baker ally — say the party failed to make serious gains in legislative races and did not provide enough support for the statewide ticket, other than Baker.

“He may not understand how much discontent there is,’’ said Patricia Doherty, a state committeewoman from Medford.

Doherty, who will not support Hughes, pointed to two issues that have riled some conservatives: the party’s failure to follow through on a final mailing for state representative candidate Caroline Colarusso of Stoneham, a mistake that Doherty said was a major blow to the candidate’s success; and the endorsements that Baker’s close political ally, former governor William F. Weld, gave to Colarusso’s opponent and to Democratic state Senator Richard Moore of Uxbridge, who was defeated by state Representative Ryan Fattman, a rising star in the GOP.

“I don’t think the party leadership knows how upset people are over that,’’ Doherty said of Weld’s endorsements. She believes it put a “nail in the coffin” of Colarusso’s candidacy.

Two party officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Weld faces a potential censure or admonishment vote at the state committee’s Dec. 10 meeting.

Hughes said the mailing house that the party used was responsible for not getting pre-election mailings out for Colarusso and three others. She also dismissed general complaints about her leadership: confusion surrounding the March convention, a lawsuit by a failed gubernatorial rival to Baker, and the poor showings by most down-ballot GOP candidates in the November elections.

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“I totally disagree,” Hughes said. “We won the governorship and made gains in the legislative races.’’

Asked about the challengers for her reelection, Hughes said: “It is politics, and people have differences of opinions, and at the end of the day, I have hope and feel confident that we can come together and we can support Charlie and all our elected legislators.”

Baker’s direct intrusion into state party politics is a break from his mentors, former governors Weld and Paul Cellucci, who shunned the Republican State Committee and party leadership. Its history over the past four decades of decline has been rife with scandals, bizarre candidates, and controversies that bordered on the theater-of-the-absurd.

Despite the objections to his power play, Baker has some standing with the conservative wing. He has worked since his 2010 defeat to reach out to the Tea Party and social conservative factions of the party. He campaigned for and donated to right-leaning legislative candidates and attended local conservative functions.

He also made sure the conservatives had a place at the party table. When GOP National Committeeman Ron Kaufman last spring was trying to block Prunier, a strong social conservative, from being elected national committeewoman, Baker got him to back down.

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Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.