The stereotype of Massachusetts Republican State Committee members, at the local or state level, is of genteel, moneyed Brahmins discreetly delivering their contribution checks during a pleasant social gathering over wine and brandy.
OLD GUARD Republican State Committee chair Robert Maginn (above) and House Minority Leader Brad Jones face younger, more extreme members in the party.
There is some truth behind this image. But in the era of same-sex marriage and the Tea Party, the Massachusetts GOP is increasingly being crashed by more ideologically driven, conservative, grassroots activists. They want the party structures to work more for them and their favored candidates, and not just for the benefit of the few elite, moderate, statewide candidates, like Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, Charlie Baker, Bill Weld, and Kerry Healey.
Tuesday, March 6, might have been a turning point of sorts in this internal squabble. That was the day of Massachusetts's presidential primary, won easily on the Republican side by Romney.
On the same ballot, Republicans also elected their state committee members: 80 in all, one man and one woman from each State Senate district. Thanks to retirements, redistricting, and some surprising upsets, more than 30 MassGOP state committee members were replaced — nearly half.
It was not, by any means, a clean sweep by pitchfork-wielding outsiders. Nor could it be read as a clear repudiation of the committee's selection of controversial Jenzabar CEO Robert Maginn Jr. as the new chairman in December. (See "It's Mitt & Scott's Party Now," News & Features, November 16, 2011.)
Still, several longtime, loyal party activists — including Christina Bain of Manchester and Cynthia Stead of Dennis — were voted off the committee. And, taken as a whole, the results move grassroots conservatives into a much stronger position in the party structure — where they will push for the party to strongly support pro-life measures, same-sex-marriage opposition, anti-illegal-immigrant positions, repeal of gun-control laws, and dramatic cuts to the state government.
And this battle for the party's direction is not limited to the relatively obscure state-committee elections.
Many of the new Republican state representatives elected in 2010 come from, and were backed by, these grassroots, mostly very conservative activists. And now they are looking to assert themselves against House Minority Leader Brad Jones and other GOP veterans in the chamber — whom they view as too acquiescent and moderate.
There has been talk of a move to oust Jones as minority leader. That is probably unrealistic for now, as it was when former representative Lew Evangelidis (now sheriff of Worcester County) tried it a couple of years ago.
Likewise, Maginn's position as chairman is probably safe for now — there seems to be no appetite to replace him. "His stated position is to work closely with the grassroots, and I'm confident that he'll deliver on that message," says newly elected committeewoman Lisa Barstow of Brookline.
But the growing strength of the conservative outsiders is clearly something Jones and Maginn will need to deal with. And the days may be dwindling before the balance of power tips for good.
The clash between the old guard and the grassroots has been building since at least the same-sex-marriage battles of 2004.