The Massachusetts Republican Party is no stranger to struggling for relevance. And this year, with President Trump on the ballot in one of the bluest of blue states, the portents held more than the usual peril.
But after losing two seats overall in the State House and Senate, a sense in GOP circles was that Election Day could have been worse.
“We essentially held serve,” said state Representative Bradley Jones Jr., the House Republican leader from North Reading. “Anyone running down-ticket was running in a headwind.”
That headwind was Trump, whom Joe Biden trounced by a margin of more than 2 to 1 in Massachusetts, one of the largest differentials in the country. Despite that shellacking, Jones said, GOP lawmakers were able to tread water on Beacon Hill, although only one-quarter of the 200 House and Senate seats were contested.
“I think President Trump drove Republican turnout,” even those in the party who voted against the president, Jones said. “But down-ticket, those Republicans stayed home” in their ballots.
Come January, the Republicans will hold only three seats in the 40-member Senate and 30 in the 160-person House.
Another Republican who saw glimmers of hope was Wendy Wakeman, a former North Andover selectwoman who managed the US Senate campaign for Kevin O’Connor, a political newcomer who lost to incumbent Edward Markey but garnered more than 1.1 million votes, roughly equal to the president’s haul.
“The Trump effect on Massachusetts had the potential to be huge,” Wakeman said.
Perhaps one reason that Republicans in the state finished close to the status quo was more aggressive messaging, she said. And that message — a familiar GOP refrain of economic development, lower taxes, limited government, and personal responsibility — is gaining ground among Blacks, Hispanics, and women, Wakeman argued.
She pointed to the House election of Republican Steven Xiarhos of West Barnstable as a product of the strong candidate appeal the party is seeking. A former Yarmouth deputy police chief, Xiarhos will succeed Republican Randy Hunt, who did not seek a sixth term.
The GOP managed to flip a House seat when Kelly Pease, a retired Army officer from Westfield, won a Western Massachusetts race to replace John Velis, a Democrat who was elected to the state Senate in May.
The GOP lost a Senate seat when Democrat John Cronin of Lunenburg defeated Republican incumbent Dean Tran of Fitchburg, who an ethics investigation found had mingled his public and political work. Afterward, the Senate barred Tran from interacting, except through e-mails, with his taxpayer-funded staff.
Advances for the GOP apparently will take time, particularly in a state where Republicans have roughly 460,000 registered voters statewide. That’s less than 9.9 percent, a low mark for the party since at least 1948.
"We have had this chasm for the last several decades where no one was articulating what it means to be a Republican,” Wakeman said. “The state committee was in essence a support team for the governor.”
Four of the last five elected governors have been Republican, a peculiar anomaly in Democratic-heavy Massachusetts. But with Governor Charlie Baker enjoying broad public support, the state Republican Party is focused on beefing up its presence in the Legislature.
Party chairman Jim Lyons, a Trump supporter who has clashed with the more-moderate Baker, is helping lead that mission.
“Jim Lyons plays offense, and for 30 years the state Republican Party has kept its head down and played defense and not really articulated a vision,” Wakeman said. “It’s been nice to see Jim Lyons take the party down the ideological road.”
The divide between Baker and Lyons was on pointed display this election cycle.
Trump attacked Baker as a “RINO” — the derisive in-party acronym of “Republican in name only” — because the governor did not parrot the president’s assaults on mail-in voting. However, the state GOP backed Trump with a statement that cited local criticisms of a new ballot-application process.
The Massachusetts party also has differed with Baker on how quickly to reopen the economy during the pandemic.
Kelli O’Hara, a political and communications strategist who advised the O’Connor campaign, said that the Republican Party across the nation “has to go back to basics, which is how we can affect people every single day.”
“As a woman, it’s about staying away from hot-button issues and thinking about how we can effectively help people in our communities,” O’Hara added. “The Republican Party needs to stop listening to all the noise and go back to how do we help the average person.”
Still, O’Hara said, the huge turnout in 2020 carries promise for the future.
The party, among other changes, “needs to focus on a digital campaign and efforts to appeal to younger voters and a younger group of candidates,” she said.
As has been the case for decades, being an active Republican in Massachusetts is not for the weak-willed.
“I hope this is the floor. You can’t get much lower than three” state senators, Wakeman said. “To be a Republican in Massachusetts is to be among the most optimistic people in the world.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.