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Governor uses his muscle to get state GOP on Team Baker

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Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.AP/Associated Press

Who's the boss of the Massachusetts GOP?

Governor Charlie Baker.

With funding from undisclosed supporters, Baker first got behind a slate of handpicked candidates, who now hold a majority of Republican state committee seats. Now he's aiming to oust conservative activist Chanel Prunier as Republican National Committeewoman — and replace her with state Representative Keiko Orrall of Lakeville. With Baker's backing, Orrall, who is also socially conservative, appears headed to win an April 5 state committee vote. Jim Conroy, a Baker political adviser, said Baker supports Orrall as "a strong and independent Republican voice and the best candidate to help unify the party at a critical time when unity is necessary."

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What's it all about? Control. The governor is using his muscle to make sure state committee members are dedicated to Team Baker.

On the surface, there isn't much difference between Prunier and Orrall. Both oppose abortion. Prunier also opposes gay marriage. Orrall calls it a "nonissue" because it has already been decided in the state, but also said she believes marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman, and voters should have had a say on the matter. Prunier backs Ted Cruz in the Republican presidential race, but told me in an interview this week that she would back Donald Trump if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee. Orrall told State House News Service she would also back Trump as the nominee.

"The distinction between us is not ideological," said Prunier of Orrall.

As a lawmaker, Orrall is now more focused on fiscal and regulatory issues — just like Baker. Meanwhile, as an activist, Prunier remains committed to a socially conservative agenda.

She has also been publicly critical of Baker. Writing last December for NewBostonPost.com, Prunier, 33, called upon Baker to be more like former governor Deval Patrick when it comes to pushing causes. "Charlie Baker ran as a Republican, and that needs to mean something more than competence, common sense, and saving taxpayers a few dollars around the edges," she argued.

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That focus makes Baker the governor with the most favorable ratings in America. But it also puts him at odds with the fractious, socially conservative wing of the Massachusetts GOP. That's usually a comfortable place for a Republican governor who plans to win reelection in Massachusetts. But in these strange days of Donald Trump, it's less so. After all, Baker has said he won't vote for Trump, in a state where Trump won 49 percent of the Republican primary vote.

Prunier, of Shrewsbury, has held the national committee post since 2013. An Assumption College graduate, she got her start in politics as US Senator Scott Brown's field director. She endorsed Baker in 2014, and gave a speech supporting him at the state convention. In doing so, she crossed fellow conservative Mark Fisher, also of Shrewsbury, who unsuccessfully challenged Baker. Even so, Prunier is viewed by Baker loyalists as a disruptive force. She's currently executive director of the Renew Massachusetts Coalition, which she describes as "a conservative nonprofit issue advocacy group" that works with other conservative groups, including the Mass. Family Institute and Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

In 2014, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance ruled that Prunier used a web of political action groups to pay herself as a consultant — another reason Baker supporters suggest she shouldn't hold a national political post. Asked about it, Prunier sent a flyer for an April 2015 event for a Prunier-run PAC — which Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito headlined. "Clearly the Baker/Polito folks didn't think much of the problem, or they wouldn't have wanted the LG to participate," she said.

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Anyone raising it now "is doing so for purely political reasons," said Prunier.

And so they are.

After all, Prunier has been pretty clear that Baker's not her boss. That's why he wants her out.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.