Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher sues state GOP over access to fall primary ballot for governor

Shrewsbury businessman Mark R. Fisher on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state Republican Party, challenging the results of the party’s convention last month, after he narrowly missed qualifying for the September primary ballot for governor.

The opening of the intraparty battle could prove a distraction for the GOP, which is hoping to focus squarely on winning back the governor’s office after eight years of Democratic control. Both sides appear to be arming for battle.

On Monday, Fisher deposited $50,000 of his own money into his campaign account, which could be used to fuel his legal fight, according to his campaign manager, Debbie McCarthy.

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Meanwhile, Kirsten Hughes, the party chairwoman, blasted out an email on Tuesday to the party’s top activists, saying she has been consulting legal experts and is preparing to launch a legal defense fund to fend off Fisher’s lawsuit.

The state party has said that Fisher, a Tea Party candidate who is hoping to challenge establishment favorite Charlie Baker, fell just short of the 15 percent of the vote at the convention needed to earn a spot on the ballot.

The party said it arrived at that conclusion after counting blank ballots—those that indicated no preference in the governor’s race-- as part of the tally.

Fisher’s lawsuit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, argues that blank ballots should not have been counted under party rules and that without them, he received 15.16 percent of the vote, enough to make him an official candidate for the primary.

Fisher wants the court to require the party to place his name on the ballot. His suit names as defendants the state GOP, Hughes, and the party’s executive director, Robert Cunningham.

Hughes released a statement saying the party’s legal counsel will review Fisher’s allegations, although she is confident the GOP will prevail.

“We are certain the outcome will prove that processes were properly followed in accordance with our rules,” she said. “Additionally, all ballot challenges were thoroughly and properly adjudicated in an open manner during the convention with Mr. Fisher’s legal counsel present.”

She insisted the lawsuit would not derail the party from its core objectives.

“The party and our candidates remain focused on proposing solutions to restore common sense and balance to Beacon Hill and we look forward to continuing to hear out Mr. Fisher’s issues and to bring the matter to a close,” she said.

In a legal memo sent to party activists on Tuesday, Michael T. Morley, an attorney who advised the GOP, said he had reviewed the party’s rules, and concluded that top Republican officials do not have the authority to revise, modify, or change the results of the convention.

In addition to seeking a court order, Fisher also called on Baker to urge party officials to allow his name to be placed on the ballot.

Baker released a statement that struck a conciliatory tone, but stopped short of declaring that Fisher should join him on the September ballot.

Baker said he was proud to have received 82 percent of the vote at the convention on March 22 and knows that Fisher and his supporters worked tirelessly and are disappointed and frustrated.

“I respect Mark’s decision to pursue this course of action, and am confident the party will work to ensure the process was fair and transparent,” Baker said. “Should a primary be determined to be the fair resolution, I will welcome it and work hard to win the nomination and then carry my message of making Massachusetts great into the general election.”

In Fisher’s 12-page complaint, he does not directly accuse party officials of conspiring to keep him off the ballot.

But he alleges that party officials, after accepting his required $25,000 convention fee, breached their contractual obligation to provide “a fair, secure and impartial vote count,” and that he “has sustained damages as a direct and proximate result of such breaches.”

The lawsuit alleges that his civil rights and First Amendment right to political association have been violated.