Some see rifts in Mass. GOP, but others see only growing pains

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BOSTON A high-ranking member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee on Friday deflected reports that Gov. Charlie Baker is quietly working to help elect more moderates to the panel and weed out representatives of the party’s more conservative wing.

“Many of the incumbents the governor is supporting are conservative in their beliefs,” Chanel Prunier, the state committee member, told NewBostonPost by email. “They are, after all, Republicans.”

According to a story in last week’s Boston Globe, James Conroy, a senior adviser to Gov. Baker, reportedly called several candidates to warn them that Baker won’t back their bids and instead plans to support rivals. The story, quoting unnamed sources, went on to say that the governor’s support would probably come in the form of endorsements, fundraising and other financial aid. Elections to the 80-member committee take place March 1, the same time as the presidential primary.

But Prunier disputed suggestions that Baker is looking to oust more conservative party members and added that all committee candidates, including incumbents, support the governor.

“Some are running because of ideological reasons, some want to focus on growing the farm team and local races and some want to bring more transparency and accountability to the nuts-and-bolts of the management of the committee,” Prunier said about what motivates people to seek a committee seat.

Anthony Ventresca, a Fourth Middlesex district representative on the committee, is more skeptical of the motives. On Friday, Ventresca told NewBostonPost that the state’s most prominent GOP powerbrokers are “pulling people out of the woodwork and moving them into districts” to run against conservative incumbents.

According to Ventresca, the targeted incumbents are those like him who in September voted to keep the caucus system for selecting delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A competing plan, defeated 37-35, called for letting presidential candidates pick the delegates.

“If you voted against changing the plan, then now you have an opponent looking to unseat you,” said Ventresca, a Billerica resident. He said that letting presidential contenders pick their own delegates would stack the deck in favor of “establishment” favorites like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“What I don’t like is that one of those guys was on a news show a couple months back and he talked about how, once the election was over, they’d try to purge the party of all the Trump supporters,” Ventresca said. He referred to an appearance by writer George Will, who penned an Aug. 12 piece that tore into Trump as a poseur trying to buy the Republican nomination.

Prunier also supported maintaining the caucus system for picking delegates. She alluded to the vote as one of the reasons challengers are emerging to some incumbent members.

“Others are running because they are upset about the 2012 national committee delegates who were removed or the attempt to do away with caucuses, and still others are running because they feel they can simply do a better job than the incumbent,” Prunier noted.

The 2012 selection process was noteworthy in that delegates to the presidential nominating convention were forced to sign and “certify under the pain and penalty of perjury” contracts requiring them to vote for Mitt Romney, even though some had won caucus support because they backed alternative candidates such as U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The requirement came after Romney, a former Bay State governor, dominated in the Massachusetts presidential primary vote.

Another vocal supporter of the caucus system, Steve Aylward, a conservative incumbent from Watertown, may face an opponent recruited to run against him by state party officials, according to people inside the committee who say they’re familiar with the situation. Aylward, who spearheaded the successful 2014 ballot campaign to repeal gas tax indexing, on Monday confirmed that he faces a challenger for his Second Suffolk & Middlesex district seat.

Aylward, who worked this year on state Rep. Geoff Diehl’s (R-Whitman) failed state Senate campaign, said he has reached out directly to Baker to request an endorsement.

“I have not received a response,” Aylward said.

Aylward also played down the notion that an intraparty battle is brewing between the conservative and moderate wings of the state GOP.

“I don’t think that the real fight is conservatives against moderates,” Aylward said. “There’s a school of thought that thinks everything is fine. We’ve got the corner office. But there’s another school of thought – we’re not fine.”

Aylward pointed to the advances the party failed to make earlier this month in municipal and special elections, including Diehl’s loss to state Rep. Michael Brady (D-Brockton) in the Second Plymouth and Bristol senate district. The open seat in play had been held by Thomas P. Kennedy, a Brockton Democrat who died in June.

 “We only make up 10 percent of the electorate and a lot of us look at us and say, hey, the party could be so much better,” Aylward said. “We don’t buy into the nonsense that ‘well, this is Massachusetts and we have to accept the fact that we’re always going to be a less-than-relevant party.’”

Out of almost 4.1 million registered voters in Massachusetts, more than half are Independents, 35 percent are Democrats and just 10.9 percent are Republicans, according to state figures. Independents can vote in either party’s primary.

“Many of us feel that with the right message and the right amount of work, we can be a very relevant party. That’s where the two sides are coming from,” Aylward said.

Aylward said the state is not in such good shape as Republican party leaders make it out to be.

“We want results and we don’t see them,” he said. “It’s not just me or two or three other people, it’s a whole lot of the party that wants results. Our leaders need to understand that mediocrity is not acceptable.”

Recent voter surveys, however, show that Baker’s moderate governing style is winning over a large majority of state voters. According to the Morning Consult, a Washington media and polling organization, Baker ranks first in approval ratings among the nation’s governors, at 74 percent. A MassINC Polling Group survey released last week said 63 percent of voters viewed him favorably, to 10 percent with an unfavorable opinion.

Another state GOP committee member being targeted is William Gillmeister of Brookfield, who represents the Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire & Middlesex district, the Globe report said last week. It said Baker’s camp backs challenger Reed V. Hillman, a former State Police superintendent and state representative. Gillmeister didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But the Brookfield Republican has been an outspoken critic of the so-called GOP establishment. In a blog post Oct. 22 on the website, Gillmeister predicted a “floor-fight” will occur at the Republican National Convention this summer.

“Just as the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives ousted John Boehner from the Speakership, so to must regular members rise up, run for delegates, and be active in all aspects of the 2016 Republican Convention,” Gillmeister wrote.