By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 13, 2006

The state committee has not done enough to build the “bench” of candidates at the local levels of selectman, school committee, and city council, agrees Richard Hersum, president of the Association of Massachusetts Republican Town and City Committee Chairmen (AMRC). “The efforts have been to support the candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor,” Hersum says.

“We have a candidate in the western part of the state who was convinced to run, and now he can’t get the state committee to return his phone calls,” says Sawyer.

Equally important is that in reflecting and promoting the governor’s wishes, the state party has failed to hone and deliver messages that resonate for other offices. Consider the current election season, in which Healey believes that in order to win, she needs to emphasize taxes and crime. If you are a Republican running for office, your constituents are hearing little or nothing about what your party would do in terms of education, job growth, or housing — never mind social issues like gay marriage and abortion that usually separate the parties. Despite millions spent on ads and non-stop media coverage of party officials, the only clear message voters are receiving is that Republicans would try to stop Democrats from doing unspecified evil behind closed doors, while opposing cop-killers and rapists.

Sawyer is helping to run an impressive-sounding regional conference for New England Republicans this November that will try to craft policy ideas for the party. “[Rebuilding the party] starts with issues. We have to get back in the game of being meaningful,” he says.

But many, including Sawyer, say the party isn’t listening. “It has become an enormously top-down party,” says Sawyer. “If you don’t fall into line, you are discharged.”

And candidates are increasingly at the mercy of the state party committee, because its leaders have encouraged donors to give centrally to the party, rather than to individual candidates. According to a Phoenix analysis of campaign finance reports, of the 270 donors who have given more than $1000 to the state GOP committee this year, only a handful have also given to more than one legislative candidate.

Leadership vacuum
The fear of many party loyalists — the “doomsday scenario” as one party veteran calls it — is that a weakened, dispirited, leaderless Republican party will fall under the sway of hardcore conservatives and single-issue Republicans, who are likely to remain active as moderates grow apathetic. That could lead the party out of the mainstream into long-term irrelevance. “There’s a concern about those groups coming out and trying to take over the party,” agrees state senator Scott Brown.

Already the state-committee membership is roughly two-thirds conservative, Sawyer says, while old Yankee Republicans like himself — pro-choice, socially moderate, fiscally conservative — have shrunk in numbers. Romney and Crate have minimized the influence of the hard-liners, Sawyer says, by packing town committees with their own supporters in order to ensure they will elect palatable delegates to the state party convention.

Yet the power of those hard-right conservatives within the party could grow rapidly, particularly if Healey loses. The turnover of the executive branch would prompt a “Republican diaspora,” one party activist says, with administration figures leaving public life, or even the state. Some will follow Romney on his presidential quest, regardless of the gubernatorial result. “You’re going to see the exodus of the Republican talent pool,” he predicts.

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