GOP to concede most legislative races, eyes gains in targeted districts

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STATE HOUSE — The state’s political history being what it is, the Massachusetts Republican Party hopes to make modest electoral gains at the state level this year, favoring a targeted strategy rather than casting the kind of wide net that has blown up in its face before.

Despite Gov. Charlie Baker’s soaring popularity and fundraising prowess, Republican candidates will challenge for just about 40 percent of House and Senate seats this fall. Party leaders say they want to maximize their resources and avoid being stretched too thin.

The MassGOP counts just 34 House members and five senators in the 200-seat Legislature this session, and the head of the party said she believes as many as three or four seats in the Senate and up to 12 in the House could be in play.

“We’re trying to work smart and efficiently, recognizing that this is a presidential year in an overwhelmingly entrenched Democratic machine state in terms of the top of the ticket, so we’re trying to make as much use of the year as we can,” MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes said.

Baker and his party appear to have learned a lesson from the last Republican governor – Mitt Romney – who in the mid-term election of 2014 with John Kerry atop the ticket as the Democratic nominee for president tried to run a slate of over 130 GOP legislative candidates only to see his party lose seats in the House and Senate.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may have helped drive record turnout in the state’s March GOP primary, but Massachusetts remains a blue state and Trump will go into November an underdog in the state.

Almost double the number of voters in March cast ballots in the Democratic primary, and the state’s Democratic winner Hillary Clinton won almost as many votes as the total cast on the Republican side.

Hughes said the MassGOP’s approach to the state-level elections in November will be “tailored” with two distinct goals: “One is to protect incumbents who are there because we’ve made some really impressive gains over the past two cycles, so that’s one focus. The other focus is to pick up seats in targeted districts where we have really seen some movement in the past couple cycles.”

With the deadline passed on Tuesday for candidates to submit nomination papers to local clerks to get on the ballot, MassGOP leaders said the party expects to run approximately 60 candidates for House seats and 20 for the Senate, including incumbents and a few primaries. There are 40 seats in the Senate and 160 in the House.

Cape Cod appears to be one region of the state that Republicans view as fertile ground. With Sen. Dan Wolf not running for re-election and Barnstable Rep. Brian Mannal leaving the House to run for his seat, Hughes said both seats could turn into wins for Republican.

Two Republicans are running for Wolf’s Senate seat, while the party has high hopes for Barnstable Town Councilor William Crocker challenging for Mannal’s seat.

On the House side, Hughes said she also sees opportunities to pick up an open seat in MetroWest where Ashland Democrat Tom Sannicandro is not running for re-election, and to possibly beat first-term Rep. Rady Mom, the first Cambodian legislator from Lowell.

On the Senate side, the GOP’s targets include Sen. Eric Lesser, a first-term Longmeadow Democrat, and Sen. Barbara L’Italien, of Andover.

Democrat-turned-Republican Chip Harrington is challenging Lesser for his western Massachusetts seat, while Susan LaPlante, the wife of a Republican Lawrence city councilor, will challenge L’Italien and officials said she will make charter schools a central issue of her campaign.

“We have some really great people, some up and comers, some people we’ve known for a long-time,” Hughes said.

Massachusetts Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Fenlon also believes the presidential election will have an impact on state races, albeit a positive one for his party. Fenlon said he won’t know for sure how many incumbent Republicans will face Democratic challengers in November, but he predicted Democrats will pick up seats.

“We anticipate a very competitive election cycle for Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans, especially considering Republicans up and down the ballot are going to have to answer when their standard bearer Donald Trump is spewing hateful rhetoric for the next five months,” Fenlon said.

He continued, “Voters in Massachusetts have shown over the years that they believe Democratic Legislatures are doing a great job when it comes to investing in things like education, infrastructure and job creation and so far out of the Republican Baker administration and Republican leadership we’ve heard a lot of status quo, lack of vision leadership and we’re going to be running an aggressive operation based on what is best for the voters of Massachusetts.”

Baker on Wednesday again disavowed Trump and said he would not vote for him. An aide said Baker would also not vote for likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November.

Baker has grown accustomed to backing his party’s presidential nominee, but has accepted the unique nature of this year’s election.

“Sure it’s odd, and it’s disappointing, but as I said there are a lot of really good people running for office here in Massachusetts and that’s where I’m going to focus my time,” Baker said.

In fact, Baker plans to formally endorse Harrington at a fundraiser on Friday night in Ludlow and has three events planned on Saturday along the South Shore to support Weymouth Town Council President Patrick O’Connor, who is the favorite to win a special election next Tuesday to succeed Republican Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund in the Senate.

An O’Connor victory wold give the MassGOP a sixth seat in the Senate to defend.

A senior political advisor to the governor said Baker would spend a good deal of time over the next six months campaigning for Republican candidates and helping the MassGOP and individual candidates raise money to support legislative campaigns.

The GOP’s slate will also likely get a boost from outside groups that have become more and more active in recent years, including the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a right-leaning non-profit that has spent heavily to support Republican candidates in past cycles.

Jobs First, a GOP-aligned super PAC, could also return as a force in state races when a lot of attention and money will be flowing to the national campaigns as well as statewide ballot questions.

Jobs First Treasurer Andrew Goodrich told the News Service this week that the super PAC hopes to replicate its efforts from 2014 when it spent about $200,000 to support down-ballot legislative candidates.

“That’s our goal to do that and more. It always comes down to fundraising,” Goodrich said.

Hughes also said that while the party does not have high hopes for picking up any Congressional seats this cycle, it will be competitive in a number of races for county sheriff. All nine members of Congress from Massachusetts are seeking re-election.

“Congressional districts in Massachusetts are difficult. They’re so horrifically gerrymandered it’s very difficult for Republicans to field a candidate that can put together a million dollars for the race. These districts are horribly drawn and completely incumbent-protected,” Hughes said.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service