Strongly conservative factions of the Massachusetts Republican Party, a constituency that Charlie Baker courted in his 2014 gubernatorial race, are now the target of the governor and his political team in their campaign to take firmer control of a sharply divided state GOP.
Baker, in an unprecedented foray into an intraparty squabble, is using the March 1 balloting for the GOP’s governing state committee to muscle the conservatives out of any significant influence and to replace them with moderate Republicans.
“Governor Baker has declared war on conservatives and wants to rid the committee of them,” said Mary Lou Daxland, president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a statewide GOP group around which hard-core social and fiscal conservatives have organized to fight what its members consider a moderate, Democratic-friendly Republican establishment.
In every Massachusetts presidential primary, voters in each state Senate district elect a woman and man to serve on the Democratic and Republican parties’ state committees. But never in modern times has the ideological tilt of either party been so sharply defined in those contests. Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito have endorsed candidates in 52 of the 54 contested GOP races, announcing them in a flurry of e-mails showing photos of the pair with their favored candidates.
It is an obscure but increasingly heated intraparty fight with high stakes for Baker’s political future and the public face of the GOP in a deeply blue state. The outcome will determine the governor’s continuing control of the state GOP apparatus, including its staffing, its resources, and its aggressive fund-raising infrastructure — all of which could be pivotal to his reelection in 2018.
Baker’s political operation is deeply entwined with the state party, which picks up much of its costs, including rent and staff salaries. Still, his decision to wade into a party fight goes against his image as a governor who tries to stay above the partisan fray. His endorsement this month of now-former presidential candidate Chris Christie was portrayed as an aberration.
The governor’s supporters say they are merely reacting to the Massachusetts Republican Assembly’s own attempts to gain a majority in the 80-member body, a move they are convinced would push the party far to the right and drive moderates out.
“The governor has endorsed candidates who have been supportive grass-roots advocates and who share his vision of an inclusive Republican Party focused on growing its numbers and winning elections,” said a top Baker adviser.
Still, some conservatives, many of whom were drawn to Baker in his 2014 campaign, are feeling the sting of being targeted.
For example, Baker and Polito endorsed 29-year-old Neil St. Clair, a newcomer to the party, for a committee seat now held by conservative activist Steven W. Aylward of Watertown.
Aylward, who did not want to comment, was a leader in the 2014 campaign to repeal automatic increases to the state gas tax, a battle that brought a swath of antitax, pro-Baker voters to the polls. Baker even credited Aylward with playing a key part in his razor-thin victory over Democrat Martha Coakley.
Adding to the insult is that Baker’s choice, St. Clair, recently moved to Boston’s Back Bay from New York, where in June 2011 he had registered as a Democrat. St. Clair, who registered as a Republican last fall, said he is drawn to Baker’s moderate Republican brand and has offered to help. He is vague about how the Baker endorsement came about.
“I don’t recall,’’ he said when asked who recruited him.
The aggressive attempt to dominate the 80-member state committee by marginalizing the right-leaning conservatives is creating an increasingly angry backlash.
“They are looking to wipe out a branch of the party,’’ said Ronald Beaty, a conservative Republican activist on Cape Cod who is trying to unseat an incumbent who favors Baker. “He wants to gain full control of the committee.”
Daxland says members of her group are shocked and disturbed that Baker and Polito are using their prestige and resources to wage a takeover of the party.
“There are some conservatives who are really upset. They are furious at what Baker is doing,’’ said Daxland, who has accused the establishment of bringing Democrats into the party fold. “He’s doing fund-raising and sending out e-mail endorsements, which is getting everybody who is conservative angry.”
At stake on the GOP side is both the definition of the party’s brand — Baker moderate or Tea Party conservative — and the fate of the national committeeman and committeewoman, posts that are filled by the state committee.
The party’s moderate faction has held a slim majority ever since chairwoman Kirsten Hughes, a Baker ally, won her post by just two votes in early 2013 in a contest with Tea Party-leaning state committeeman Rick Green.
But most important, the Baker-dominated state party, with its ability to raise large donations under federal campaign rules, is critical to the governor’s ongoing political and fund-raising prowess.
It has provided much of the resources for him to raise $1.97 million in 2015 — a record for a first-year governor — and allowed the party to amass an unprecedented $1.2 million in its federal account that is being used to support much of its state political operations — a controversial practice that runs up against state law banning the use of federally raised money in state politics.
The Republican Assembly has put together a slate of candidates that includes conservative allies on the committee who are fending off the governor’s endorsed challengers, candidates battling Baker-backed moderates for open seats, and challengers trying to unseat moderate committee members.
“This year, the establishment forces who fought against having a conservative, pro-life platform have determined that they would target 56 seats to defeat principled conservatives for the State Committee,’’ the group said in a fund-raising letter last week. “Their assault means we need to fight back.”
Few of the conservatives interviewed had harsh words for the governor personally, instead criticizing the party’s “establishment.”
“I am surprised he is doing that,’’ said Linda M. Zuern of Bourne, who is running for an open seat and is being challenged by a Baker/Polito-backed candidate.
“I don’t have any negative feeling against him at all,” said Zuern. “I think they are probably threatened at having a more conservative change in the party.”
Meanwhile, Republican national committeeman Ron Kaufman, an establishment figure who has served in the party post for decades, would face a tough reelection for the job if the conservatives take over. National committeewoman Chanel Prunier — who got her post with Baker’s help in 2013 but is closely allied with the conservatives — may face some payback if the moderate coalition takes control.