Political Intelligence

As Massachusetts GOP gathers, no head wears the crown

Three of the leading actors in Massachusetts Republican glories past come together tonight to help ensure the party has a future.

Former Governor Bill Weld, former Senator Scott Brown, and former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey headline a state GOP fundraiser at the Taj Boston, the proceeds expected to help whichever candidate emerges from the special US Senate Republican primary try to reclaim a foothold for the down-on-its-luck party.

Consider: Healey has moved back to academia, announcing on Sunday that she would take the helm at Babson College. Brown eschewed party hopes that he run again for Senate, instead jumping to a white-shoe law firm. Former Governor Mitt Romney has gone to California. Weld – well, Weld has gone to work for a lobbying powerhouse, though he puckishly appeared at this month’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston.

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One by one, the politicians who have notched the greatest success in state Republican politics over the last decade – Romney, Brown and Healey – are gone, or at least off to the side. Since 2002, when the Romney-Healey ticket perpetuated GOP control of the chief executive office, their three names have appeared on statewide general-election ballots, collectively, six times. Each has won once, each has lost once.

With the major figures of 21st-century Bay State Republican politics effectively taken off the board within the last six months, the party is left, for now at least, without a clear standard-bearer.

Stretching back to 1990, the dawn of Republican gubernatorial dominance here, former acting Governor Jane Swift has evinced little interest in returning to the ballot, former Governor Argeo Paul Cellucci is stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and Weld has donned a lobbyist’s hat.

The obvious dauphin is Charles D. Baker, the 2010 gubernatorial nominee. Baker has told associates that much of his thinking about a gubernatorial bid next year now centers on whether a Republican can win statewide in Massachusetts. Republicans close to him say he is undecided about running.

From there, the bench thins out. Richard Tisei, the former state Senate minority leader, lost a US House race last November to Representative John Tierney by fewer than 4,000 votes. Former Shrewsbury state Representative Karyn Polito, who ran for treasurer in 2010, has not ruled out a second run for higher office.

“I think there’s definitely a power vacuum, but if you’re someone like a Kerry Healey, there’s no way you can look at the landscape and see a way to win right now,” said Meredith Warren, a Republican political consultant. “Unless you’re a candidate like Scott Brown, or with Scott Brown qualities, I don’t think you’ll see anyone who can step up and fill that vacuum right now.”

Warren added, “It seems like everyone is taking a pass on it right now. I think people are waiting for it and watching for it, but there’s no one really on the horizon right now. That’s why everyone was so disappointed when Scott said he wasn’t going to do it, because there’s no one standing behind him in line.”

That vacuum has also left uncertainty about which flag to follow, as the various factions loyal to one powerbroker or another search for a leader.

“No one has control over what’s going on,” said one former state party official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party politics.

One potential skirmish for the vacancy is unfolding in the special election for US Senate, where voters in the April 30 primary will pick a nominee. Cohasset investor Gabriel Gomez, former US Attorney Michael Sullivan, and state Representative Daniel Winslow are vying for that title. In a compressed campaign schedule, no clear front-runner has distinguished himself.

“If anybody did have any power, then it wouldn’t just be a complete coin flip right now between the three Republicans running for US Senate,” said the former party official.

State GOP chairwoman Kirsten Hughes has yet to put her imprimatur on the party, and much of her influence has been rooted in ties to Brown, now in the private sector. Brown remains popular within the party, but after losing to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in last November’s election and lacking access to the gears of government, it remains unclear the extent to which he will be able, or eager, to leverage control over the party.

Hughes argues that Brown sneaked up on the political class, and that such a rapid emergence could happen again.

“I think that folks would agree that until two weeks before the election, nobody knew or cared or even covered Scott Brown,” Hughes said.

But she acknowledged that a leading role within the party lies vacant, saying, “I think the stage is set for someone to come to the center of the stage here in Massachusetts.”

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