Jennifer A. Nassour is out to prove that the Grand Old Party may be the new thing in the Bay State.
A 38-year-old mother of two, Nassour became one of the nation’s youngest state party leaders when she was elected Republican chairwoman in January 2009. Now she is focusing on attracting more like her: women, young people and those fed up with the status quo.
“Things have become different,” said Nassour.
The numbers back up her assertions.
Before Nassour took charge, 14 of the 80 slots on the party’s state committee were empty. Now just one or two are vacant.
Since last summer, 100 town committees have been set up across Massachusetts.
This year’s Republican convention in Worcester was attended by more than 3,000 delegates. In 2006, about 1,400 delegates participated.
Though Scott Brown’s election to the U.S. Senate shocked the political establishment, Nassour says she saw it coming when she noticed 500 people showing up at Brown fundraisers.
“It’s been quite some time since we have had that many people in a room for a Republican in Massachusetts,” she said.
For Nassour, Brown’s victory was just a beginning. She recalls thinking the day after the Jan. 19 special election: “Oh my God, there’s a lot of work to do this year.”
Nassour has been preparing for the challenge since she was 19.
As a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Nassour was approached by someone collecting signatures to run for office. She was so intrigued that she spent the rest of that day collecting signatures herself.
She interned for a New York state senator and later studied law at St. John’s University.
After graduating in 2000, Nassour moved to Massachusetts with her fiance, to work as an attorney. But she couldn’t get her mind off politics.
“I was practicing law, but I loved politics more,” she said.
In 2008 she represented her Charlestown district on the Republican state committee.
“I was not thrilled by the climate that was there,” she said. “It was an election year and people should have been really excited and working hard. No one seemed like they were interested in doing anything.”
After the presidential election, Nassour decided to run for chairman.
“I was treating it, and it was, a statewide campaign,” said Nassour. “I was in Springfield in January in a snowstorm. I was in South Dartmouth in December with a lot of ice. It was a really bad winter. My heart went out to Sen. Brown when he was campaigning.”
Nassour defeated two other candidates for the leadership post, and came to an office that was in debt, where the computers constantly crashed and where a mouse lived on her desk.
She decided not to take a salary.
“I didn’t think it was fair to walk into a position where there was debt and no staff and [get paid],” she said. “I still think it was the right decision to make, despite what my husband said.”
Nassour has made sure to include all as many Republicans as she can in her decision making.
Republicans all have “a seat at the table, and I am interested in their concerns, their views and take everything under advisement,” said Nassour, who attended the Tea Party rally on the Boston Common in April. “I didn’t promise anyone that I would actually do what I heard, but that I would actually listen.”
With this renewed enthusiasm, Republicans are hoping to gain power in a heavily Democratic state. They have a chance this year. There are 34 seats – mostly held by Democrats – in which the incumbent is not running this year. Add to that an electorate that seems to be weary of incumbents in general.
The state GOP has been scouting viable candidates and hosting seminars to teach them how to get their message out, target potential voters and talk to the media. It estimates it may field as many as 176 candidates in the fall, the highest number in a decade.
“The candidates that are running this year have a fantastic message that really goes along with what’s happening on Beacon Hill right now,” she said. “So it is about jobs, it’s about the economy, it’s about keeping the government small and keeping taxes low.”
The push for seats echoes a 2004 initiative by then-Gov. Mitt Romney to gain enough seats to protect his vetoes from overrides. The party fielded more than 100 new candidates; all of them lost.
Nassour said this year will be different because of the economy and disappointment with how Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature have reacted to the recession.
“There’s no reason for that in an area where we have all these great colleges and universities and no one can find a job,” she said.
Marty Linsky, a political scientist at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government, said Republicans have to back candidates with broad appeal if they hope to succeed.
“It’s going to be a big year for anti-incumbents, and in Massachusetts, incumbents are mostly Democrats,” he said. “So there’s a lot of potential for Republicans.”
(Aviva Gat is a reporter in Boston University’s State House program.)