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They got ‘clobbered’ on Election Day. Now Massachusetts Republicans are weighing whether to change leaders

MassGOP chairman Jim Lyons spoke from the back of a truck in August.
MassGOP chairman Jim Lyons spoke from the back of a truck in August.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

After seeing their small minority on Beacon Hill shrink further this year, Massachusetts Republicans are now pivoting to a fight for control of their deeply divided state party ahead of the 2022 election cycle, when the governor’s office and every legislative seat will be on the ballot.

The election of a new party chair — slated for January — is expected to prove pivotal in determining the direction of the party after years of realizing few electoral gains among candidates not named Charlie Baker.

Jim Lyons, a President Trump ally and former state lawmaker who has led the party since 2019, has said he will seek reelection, and state Representative Shawn Dooley, a House member since 2014, said Monday he will also run for the post, pitching the need for a party “rebranding.”

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The $75,000-a-year position is picked by the Massachusetts GOP’s 80-seat state committee, which has increasingly taken on a more conservative bent despite Baker’s efforts to shape it.

More candidates are also eyeing a race that is likely to show the sharp fault lines running through the party, which has hewed closely to President Trump, both in tone and approach, under Lyons.

That conservative rhetoric has often come at the expense of Baker, the state’s popular, moderate governor, and could complicate Baker’s own potential reelection bid in two years even with Trump out of the White House. (Baker has said he is considering vying for an unprecedented third consecutive term.)

“President Trump has brought tremendous energy,” said Lyons, though he acknowledged it’s unclear if it will translate past Trump’s departure on Jan. 20. “My focus since the day I ran in 2019 has been to try to increase our ranks in the Legislature. I really feel a strong desire to see if we can fundamentally change the Republican Party.”

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At the ballot box, it’s proven to be a struggle.

There will be just three Republicans in the state Senate come January after the GOP lost five seats in the Legislature during 2020, strengthening Democrats' super-majority in both branches. And while some Republicans felt the results could have been worse, the losses still stung, including in a House district that had been held by Republicans — first by Kevin Poirier, then his wife, Betty Poirier — since the late 1970s.

Further fueling Republican frustration is that the party, on a national level and elsewhere, far exceeded expectations even as it lost the White House.

“There’s no silver lining to any of this,” said Tom Mountain, the state party’s vice chairman. Mountain did not directly address Monday whether he’s considering running for chairman. “We got clobbered. We’re the state [party] that probably got hit the hardest.”

It’s renewed calls from many in the party to embrace a message of unity. Dooley, a former Norfolk town clerk running for the first time to be party chairman, said that in repeatedly attacking Democrats and Baker, the party apparatus has focused too heavily on national issues and ignored the GOP’s “essential” messaging of promoting smaller government, individual liberty, and providing a check on Democrats.

“We need to rebuild our brand,” said Dooley, who also serves on the state committee. “We can’t be attacking Republicans, whether it’s Charlie Baker or the 18-year-old kid who just joined the party. We need to have a unified team working toward the common goal of bringing more balance to the state.”

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Dooley said he intends to keep his state representative seat if elected chairman while ceding the “nitty gritty” operations to an executive director and finance director — two positions that Lyons has not filled.

The MassGOP had $80,000 in its federal account as of mid-October and was on pace for its worst fund-raising cycle in 12 years after a lucrative fund-raising operation, built under Baker, collapsed last year. Mountain, the vice chairman, said the party has enough money to cover expenses, including rent, for a few months, but said it’s in “danger of becoming insolvent” without a fund-raising push.

“It’s quite clear that the MassGOP needs a resurrection,” said Susan Smiley, a state committee member and Lancaster Republican who unsuccessfully ran for an open House seat this year. Smiley voted for Lyons in 2019 when he beat a Baker-favored candidate, 47-30, but said the party needs new leadership.

“I think the strategy, if there was a strategy, failed,” she said.

Michael Valanzola, a state committee member and one-time Baker administration official who resigned in 2016, said he is also considering running. Similar to Dooley, he said rebuilding the party’s shrinking GOP caucuses in the State House is critical.

“Jim’s a great guy . . . and I had a lot to do with helping him win two years ago. But we have not necessarily been able to tap into the energy that you’re seeing in other parts of the country,” he said. “People are frustrated by that.”

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An adviser to Baker said the governor is not engaged in the race for chair, nor is he supporting a candidate at this point. But Baker stressed at a press conference last week that Massachusetts Republicans need to recalibrate their pitch to voters.

“It’s important for people who run for statewide office to understand that what voters care about here are statewide or local issues. That’s really where our focus as a party needs to be,” Baker said. He did not say, however, whether he’ll be on the ticket in 2022. “That’s a long time away.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.