Donald Trump came to Worcester on Wednesday night, boasting about his poll numbers, invoking Tom Brady, and dishing out insults. Governor John Kasich of Ohio swung through the Financial District on Tuesday. And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has signed up backers from the state Legislature.
The Massachusetts Republican presidential primary is slowly stirring to life this season, with the potential for an uncommonly spirited tussle in a heavily Democratic state that's usually an afterthought for GOP candidates.
The contest next spring will be the first GOP presidential primary since 2000 without either a native son or a sitting president on the ballot, and the outcome remains as unpredictable in Massachusetts as it has been nationally. Adding to the uncertainty is that in 2016, the state's primary falls on "Super Tuesday'' on March 1, early in an unsettled primary process.
"It's sort of the Wild West, as far as saying that there's no clear favorite, at least among contributors and activists," said former state Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, a Republican thus far uncommitted to any candidate. "I can't remember a time since I've been involved in politics, going back to the '80s . . . that the contest has been this wide open."
Former governor Mitt Romney's candidacy essentially made the state primary a foregone conclusion in 2008 and 2012. And President George W. Bush ran unopposed in the 2004 primary, making the upcoming primary the first wide-open contest in nearly a generation.
What's more, GOP insiders are increasingly mentioning the prospect of a brokered convention next July — the party's first since 1976. While many handicappers think the nomination will be decided by then, such states as Massachusetts that have traditionally been overlooked could play outsized roles, with the state's 42 delegates — along with 27 alternates — suddenly becoming valuable.
Governor Charlie Baker has not endorsed any candidate and said he plans to stay out of the primary. But he is actively trying to wrest more control of the state GOP committee from activists who are backing candidates more conservative than the moderates Baker prefers.
Unlike influential early-voting states such as New Hampshire, where public opinion surveys are frequent, there is scant polling data on the Massachusetts primary. While Trump remains atop or near the top of polls nationally, activists and establishment Republicans in Massachusetts are scattered among other candidates.
Interviews with more than 20 activists and officeholders revealed a state party divided.
"I don't think a lot of Republicans actually have a first choice," said Steven Aylward, a state GOP committeeman from Watertown. "Everybody has an opinion on Donald Trump."
Praising Worcester at his evening rally at the DCU Center Wednesday, Trump slammed Secretary of State John Kerry — "one of your own" — for spearheading the nuclear arms agreement with Iran. The mogul was interrupted several times by protesters.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, largely by dint of his deep family ties, has a small but high-level group of backers. Two longtime Romney advisers, Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, have joined Bush's campaign.
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey "has a lot of support here, probably more so than he has in other states," said Tisei. Christie, a former US attorney who campaigned for Baker and former senator Scott Brown, has ties to Republicans in the financial and law enforcement sectors.
One of them, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, said Christie likely would have captured many of the supporters who have wound up backing Trump, in part because Christie projects a plain-spoken appeal and prosecutor's toughness.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has one of the more active organizations in the state, with backing from members of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, which calls itself "the Republican wing of the Republican Party." Cruz swung through last month to raise money for the Marlborough City Committee, a gesture meant to cultivate Republicans.
The state GOP's chairwoman, Kirsten Hughes, when asked which candidates were picking up popular support, replied, "Kasich and Rubio, and I'll say Bush because folks like him, but really the wind is at those two guys' backs if you ask me. If you're more conservative, I don't hear them talking about anybody but Ted Cruz."
While Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have enjoyed success in the polls, Hughes said, they are faring less well among the high-frequency voters and activists who often drive primary results.
"I don't see a lot of people going to New Hampshire to do things for them or hosting events for them," she said.
One undercurrent of the state's presidential primary is the disaffection that conservative activists feel with both the local and national party establishment, which they see as considerably more moderate.
Massachusetts Republican Assembly president Mary Lou Daxland, who supports Cruz, said party leadership would "most likely carry the water for whatever establishment candidate comes out in the final days of the primary."
Simmering distrust toward mainstream Republicans could manifest itself in next year's primary.
"Everybody's tired of getting Bob Dole and John McCain, and even Mitt Romney, pushed down their throat," Aylward said, citing three establishment moderates from past campaigns. "You see the same thing in Massachusetts you see across the country, which is pushback."
Rubio has found something of a sweet spot in Massachusetts, appealing to disparate blocs of the party, including many on Beacon Hill. State Senators Viriato "Vinny" deMacedo of Plymouth and Ryan Fattman of Webster serve on Rubio's state leadership team, and Fattman said he plans to lead a contingent of about 30 volunteers to New Hampshire this weekend to campaign for him.
House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. suggested he could back Rubio.
"Super Tuesday'' has also been tabbed "the SEC primary" because so many Southern states vote. That means some candidates will be spending a lot of time campaigning in those states in the days leading up to the March contest.
"We won't see much of them," predicted Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Democrat.
But, Galvin said, "intense national coverage" of the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, one day before the primary voter enrollment deadline in Massachusetts, could fuel interest here.
Also, with Hillary Clinton expected to handily win the Democratic primary, unenrolled voters could turn instead to the Republican contest.
Many Republicans said that, even with the potential for Massachusetts to play a newly prominent role in the nominating contest, voters here would still likely pay heed to how their neighbors to the north vote.
"As New Hampshire goes, there's a pretty good chance that Massachusetts will follow," Tisei said.