Will the GOP Big Tent exclude Massachusetts conservatives?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/09/will-the-gop-big-tent-exclude-massachusetts-conservatives/

Will the Big Tent have enough room for conservatives in the Massachusetts Republican Party? The answer to that question is wide open at this point.

On Super Tuesday, the GOP rank and file voted for their presidential choice. Nearly half selected the ultimate political outsider, Donald J. Trump. Some voters were surprised to see a down-ballot race for the Republican State Committee, usually a sleepy quadrennial non-contest to fill the 80-person GOP governing board. This year, Governor Charlie Baker and the party establishment unexpectedly poured money and prestige into that election. Endorsing moderate candidates running in 52 contested races, Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and a host of well-heeled contributors sought complete control of the State Committee. Detecting insufficient subservience to the whims of Beacon Hill among independent-minded conservatives, GOP insiders decided that such State Committee members stretched the Big Tent concept too far. “Imagine,” chortled the power brokers, “those members actually think we welcome conservatives and pro-lifers into the party.”

The GOP establishment proceeded to raise an unprecedented sum of campaign cash to spend unseating conservatives. The truth about whether they raised and spent $300,000 or $1 million will never see the light of day. Traditional campaign reporting restrictions do not apply to State Committee races, so the sums will remain shrouded in secrecy. Regardless, the totals are unprecedented for such intra-party match-ups. Most times, progressive Republicans tend to be “good government” types who advocate openness and transparency. Just not in this case.

The insider stable of hand-picked candidates benefited from multiple full-color mailings with beaming photos of Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito lavishing praise upon their political favorites. Baker, along with such old-fangled party bosses as House Minority Leader Brad Jones, also used dialed-up robocalls promoting moderates against the conservatives. So extravagant was the robocalling that for the first time in local political races, the taped messages featured an ingratiating personal salutation: “Hello Joseph. This is Governor Charlie Baker … ” Then followed the explicit political plug on behalf of the particular candidate.

Oddly enough, the establishment slate claimed to be interested in building the party grassroots. Yet that very same Super Tuesday election day, three special elections were held to choose new state representatives. How much candidate recruitment and heavy-duty fundraising was expended to win open legislative seats? Somewhere between none and very little. Instead of targeting liberal Democrats, the GOP moderates took careful aim at the last remaining outpost of conservative political influence in Massachusetts, the Republican State Committee.

Now, one might expect that progressive Republicans would favor independent voices on the State Committee. After all, these social liberals constantly whine that the national Republican Party fails to give them enough clout in the GOP Big Tent. Yet, here in the Bay State, the impulse among progressives is to narrow the tent and toss out conservatives. What some may see as bare-faced liberal hypocrisy is really nothing more than old-fashioned, brass-knuckled power politics.

Demonstrating a knack for political patronage that would have impressed Boss Tweed and James Michael Curley, the Baker administration found “good jobs at good wagers” on the public payroll for favored candidates. And the likes of Tweed and Curley could only have drooled at the prospect of doling out the plum five- and six-figure sinecures found in state government today. Boston Herald columnist and talk radio star Howie Carr dug up data exposing salaries rising to the $115,000 range for the right people. Previously viewed as an impartial, above-the-fray and steady-handed administrator, Gov. Baker has altered his public image with this foray into the slippery and rancorous game of crony politics.

Although far from a triumphant sweep, Baker’s establishment slate managed to claim victories and upend a few incumbent conservatives. Yet, the future of the State Committee remains uncertain because many members ran unchallenged. Whether they will back the priorities of independent-minded conservatives or of Beacon Hill loyalists is far from clear.

One might think that after their less-than-stellar showing, the insiders would take a breath and consider what’s best for the future of the state GOP. But when the goal is to monopolize power, nothing can stand in the way. Hence, they now want to remove Chanel Prunier from her unpaid post as Massachusetts Republican National Committeewoman. Even though she steadfastly supported Charlie Baker at the 2014 Republican convention and has ever since, Prunier does not pass the ideological purity test. She embraces the full-spectrum conservatism of the national Republican Party. That’s unacceptable to Bay State “Small Tent” progressive elitists.

The Baker insiders selected their own candidate, State Representative Keiko Orrall, to oppose incumbent Prunier. After the Super Tuesday results, Orrall is guaranteed one vote; her husband Norman was elected to the State Committee as part of the Beacon Hill loyalist slate. Not content with Rep. Keiko Orrall’s generous taxpayer-funded salary and benefits package, Norman Orrall suddenly turned up on the state public payroll cashing checks ballooning to more than $110,000 annually.

In contrast, Chanel Prunier does not appear on any public payroll. She’s not beholden to any Beacon Hill power-brokers. No wonder they want to oust her.

No one has done more “to grow” the GOP grassroots in the past decade than Chanel Prunier. Actively recruiting and tirelessly campaigning for candidates for the legislature and for local offices, she has dedicated herself to expanding the Republican base. In fact, one of the countless new candidates on whose behalf Prunier campaigned and raised funds was none other than Keiko Orrall. That was a few years back, when Orrall was first seeking a seat in the legislature and needed the support of grassroots conservatives. Now, the antagonist in a backbiting political drama reeking of opportunism and disloyalty worthy of Macbeth, Orrall seeks to oust Prunier and take over her position of National Committeewoman. Looking down — or perhaps looking up — at the unfolding scene, Machiavelli smirks approvingly.

In any state outside of the Northeast or the West Coast, the roles would be completely reversed. The liberal and moderate Republicans would be on the outside, begging the dominant conservative wing for a voice in the party apparatus. Whereas, in Massachusetts, the moderate insiders relentlessly proceed to grab every seat of influence away from grassroots conservatives.

In the Bay State, conservatives advocate for the Big Tent. They want to build a tent roomy enough for the social liberals representing the country-club wing of the party and for the pro-life and tax-cutting conservatives, who do the lion’s share of the “nuts and bolts” political grunt work. Will the Big Tent survive in Massachusetts? We’ll know on April 5. That’s when the 80-member Republican State Committee votes to re-elect Chanel Prunier, or to cast her aside after years of hard work at the grassroots level. If Prunier loses, then the Big Tent loses. A new slogan will unfurl for the Massachusetts Republican Party: No room for conservatives in this shrinking tent.

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read his past columns here.