WORCESTER -- Massachusetts Republicans gave an overwhelming endorsement to gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker at their state convention today, giving him a massive margin that forces GOP rival Christy Mihos out of the race and frees him from what could have been a bitterly divisive primary battle.
In an impressive display of broad support among party leaders and activists, Baker won 89 percent of the delegate votes, while Mihos got only 11 percent, falling far short of the 15 percent threshold needed to qualify for the September primary ballot. GOP leaders said Baker's margin was the biggest in recent convention history.
Baker, who has been the party establishment's favored candidate to retake the governor's office, claimed victory late in the afternoon surrounded by his parents, wife, and children, as red, white, and blue confetti and balloons rained on the crowd inside the DCU Center.
"We have a job to do and that job starts today," Baker told cheering delegates. "It’s time to take our state back from the Beacon Hill insiders, the status quo-ers and non-reformers, and give the people of Massachusetts the government they deserve – affordable, accountable, and responsive.”
With the convention endorsement and the collapse of Mihos's candidacy, Baker has cleared a major hurdle and is now free to focus on the general election race against Governor Deval L. Patrick and state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, a former Democrat running as an independent.
Baker, a 53-year-old former health insurance executive and cabinet official in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, said his campaign themes of ''jobs, taxes, and spending'' appealed to the Republican delegates, and he predicted they will fuel a GOP victory in November.
''It's a message that clearly resonated with the crowd,'' Baker told reporters after the vote, as his aides boasted of their huge "wipeout" of Mihos.
The battle over the gubernatorial endorsement capped a day that Republicans believe will launch a strong push toward November by statewide and legislative candidates, one they hope ends with the party regaining influence on Beacon Hill after years of decline. The GOP leadership is looking to capitalize on the voter unrest and anger that helped propel Senator Scott Brown's victory in January's Senate race.
The convention endorsed Mary Z. Connaughton, an accountant and former Turnpike Authority board member, for state auditor, with 85 percent of the vote. But her rival, Kamal Jain, a Ron Paul-inspired candidate, slipped through to the primary by one vote on a recount, party officials said. State Representative Karyn Polito of Shrewsbury was endorsed as the only candidate for treasurer, and Woburn City Clerk William C. Campbell got the nod as the only candidate for secretary of state.
The battle between Baker and Mihos ended weeks of speculation over whether Mihos's candidacy could survive the convention. While Baker advisers had downplayed any efforts to block Mihos from the primary ballot, their strategy was clearly aimed at driving a wedge between the Cape Cod convenience store executive and the delegates.
Mihos, who bolted the party in 2006 to run for governor as an independent, immediately threw his support to Baker. He attributed his resounding loss to his refusal to be part of the GOP establishment. Baker and his aides played heavily on Mihos's defection four years ago, which many Republicans feel undercut the party's candidates.
''I stepped on a lot of toes,'' Mihos told reporters after the vote, saying he would not run for office again.
In his convention speech, Baker, who spent 10 years as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, never once mentioned his experience leading the company, which Democrats have blasted for regularly increasing premiums on businesses and families. Instead, he sought to play up workaday jobs in his youth, saying he had once been a bouncer at a Harvard Square bar and had “worked my way through school on a loading dock at a welding supply and bottled gas company.”
Baker went on to assert that he had the experience to bring fiscal stability to state government, while painting Patrick and the Democrats on Beacon Hill as tax-raisers and patronage-hungry politicians.
''He says he wants to finish what he started,'' Baker said of the governor, drawing jeers. ''He thinks that Massachusetts is heading in the right direction Well, governor – tell that to hard-working families making due with less, while the state payroll continues to rise and political appointees fill jobs after 'nationwide searches.'''
He went on, ''If one of these two insiders wins in November, they’ll just do what they’ve done for the past four years: Wring their hands about cutting services to the bone, while they back their trucks up to the loading dock of state government and fill it up to feather their cronies’ and their special interests’ nests on your dime.''
Democrats responded to Baker's speech hours later by challenging, in a point-by-point rebuttal, several of his claims about Patrick's record. They said that despite Baker's assertions, Massachusetts is deemed to be a good state to do business in, that people are moving back to the state, and that there was no budget surplus when Patrick took office.
At one point before the balloting, Baker faced a revolt among social conservatives who flooded the delegations with a leaflet attacking a bill for transgender rights that Tisei has cosponsored with other lawmakers. Contending that it would allow men to enter women's bathrooms, they demanded to know whether Baker supported the bill. The Baker campaign immediately circulated a leaflet saying he would veto the ''bathroom bill'' if he were elected.
The issue could have cost Baker some critical votes at a time when his aides were not certain he had enough to block Mihos from the ballot. Mihos fanned the flames, declaring to applause that he would veto the ''bathroom bill.''
''There is a lot of buzzing going on,'' said Kris Mineau, a conservative activist and delegate from North Reading. He said Baker's statement was a ''positive influence'' in his decision about whom to support; he declined to say whom he ultimately backed.
At an awkward press conference after Baker won the convention's endorsement, he stood next to Tisei and said he opposed his running mate's legislation and was not concerned about labelling it "the bathroom bill" -- a term used by opponents of gay rights.
Baker, who supports gay marriage and abortion rights, denied that he was trying to court social conservatives.
“I think a guy who supports gay marriage and is pro-choice and has been pretty clear on those and picked a gay fellacq as his running mate is pretty much not pandering to much of anybody,” Baker said, putting a hand on Tisei’s shoulder.
Tisei has, in the past, strongly rejected the phrase "bathroom bill," saying critics use it to misrepresent the goal of equal rights for transgendered people.
“I think they’re trying to scare people into opposing the bill and I don’t think it’s really an issue,” he told his local paper last summer. “I know it’s been dubbed the ‘bathroom bill,’ but this is really a bill to treat people equally and fairly under the law.”
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