Governor Charlie Baker’s political team is using hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed funds to wage a bitter intra-party battle to regain control of the Massachusetts GOP, a critical fight that could help determine whether he will run for an unprecedented third term.
The contest is playing out in an obscure corner of Massachusetts politics: the races for 80 seats on the Massachusetts State Republican Committee in Tuesday’s election, down-ballot contests that are overshadowed by the presidential race but could significantly shape the state’s electoral politics.
At stake for Baker is control — or at least substantially more influence — over the state GOP and its ability to provide him paid staff, headquarters, and the use of federal fund-raising rules that free his committee of stricter state limits on donations. He lost that control last year when the committee elected a socially conservative chairman, Jim Lyons, a former state representative from Andover who swept the Baker team out of the headquarters.
The governor and his political team declined to comment on the political operation. But Republican party insiders estimate his political team is involved in about 20 contests, either supporting incumbents or challengers. Four years ago, the Baker team was involved in at least 40 such races and spent as much as $1 million on the effort.
This time, Baker operatives are using a specially created limited liability corporation — Red Massachusetts Grassroots Action — that is not required to reveal its sources of funds or its expenditures.
The entity, which is using Boston PO Box 8010, is mailing campaign literature to GOP voters for candidates the governor is backing for state committee seats.
Some of the promotional material contains photos of President Trump — whom Baker has refused to endorse — and uses Trump campaign slogans, such as “draining the swamp.” Baker, who works to project a socially liberal and fiscally moderate image, has infuriated many conservative GOP activists for keeping a pointed distance from the president.
“He never missed an opportunity to attack Trump, so I find it curious that he now feels compelled to co-op Trump’s message and image,'' said Steve Aylward, a conservative pro-Trump GOP state committeeman from Watertown and strong Lyons supporter. “For the past three years, Baker and his people couldn’t run far enough way from our president and now they are embracing him. ... It’s duplicitous.”
The state laws governing the fund-raising and expenditures of all other political activities do not apply to state committee races, allowing Baker to raise and spend money without any public filings. In 2016, the Globe reported that the governor, in an unprecedented political operation, spent as much as $1 million raised from wealthy donors to back state committee candidates. Elections for Republican and Democratic committee members are held every four years, during the state’s presidential primaries.
As he did four years ago, the governor is refusing to reveal the donors who financed his unusual political campaign. In 2016, he won just enough committee seats to elect his chosen party chair, Kirsten Hughes. That cleared the way for the state GOP to continue to pay the salaries of his political staff and his fund-raising operation as they worked out of the GOP’s Boston headquarters.
But Lyons handily beat Baker’s candidate for party chair in early 2019, forcing him to move his political operations to a rented downtown office and to pay his staff of with his committee’s funds, not party-raised money.
The aggressive move by the governor — and equally tough pushback by his opponents in the party — appears to be less ideological and more about control of party resources.
“This is basically Jim Lyons versus Charlie Baker,'' said Janet Leombruno, an incumbent committeewoman from Framingham, a Baker loyalist who is facing a stiff challenge in Tuesday’s vote.
One of the targets of Baker’s team is Patricia Saint Aubin, the state committeewoman from Norfolk and a one-time Baker ally. Saint Aubin has used her accounting background to advise Lyons on his probe of finance problems he claims to have inherited from Baker’s team.
”I feel I am a target because I have unearthed financial irregularities,'' she said.
But Martin Lamb, a state committeeman from Holliston and Lyons supporter, said much of the resistance to Baker controlling the party stems from the governor’s team pouring party resources into his re-election campaign and not spending more money in local contests that would build a solid Republican base.
"This a battle of how the funds are spent are spent,'' Lamb said. “In the 2018 election, vast amounts of money went to his re-election, through the same old consultants and their companies, and not to lower races.”