In reliably blue Massachusetts, where Democrats dominate and a moderate Republican leads the state, the man leading the GOP is a political outlier: a brash conservative who has embraced former president Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud and empowered the party’s hardliners.
It’s no secret that the moderate politics of Governor Charlie Baker look very different from the hardline approach of GOP Chairman Jim Lyons. But as the party faces dwindling vote share, fund-raising, and electoral power — all ahead of a gubernatorial election next year — it can’t afford to back the wrong horse.
Baker is one of the country’s most popular governors, though many of his supporters are Democrats; Lyons’ tenure has left the party with fewer seats in the Legislature and less cash in the bank, a fund-raising dip that followed a rift with Baker’s operation. But as the national Republican party struggles to define itself in the wake of Trump and the Massachusetts GOP fights to survive, the man leading it is doubling down.
Now, the erstwhile Baker ally is weaponizing party bylaws in a bid to oust the governor from the GOP’s political operation, a strategy with heavy implications for next year’s governor’s race.
Undermining the Massachusetts GOP’s most popular elected official might seem counterproductive in a state where Republicans are scarce, beloved ones even scarcer. But it’s nothing new for Lyons.
Critics say Lyons’ combative strategy, centered on national controversies and cultural battles, has failed. But conservative activists say electing a moderate to the governor’s office has gotten the party nowhere. Elected Republicans may need to compromise in liberal Massachusetts, but the party itself shouldn’t yield on important principles, they contend.
Lyons, for his part, says he is leading a party with a “wide philosophical wingspan.”
“I make no apologies for supporting Republicans, including former president Donald Trump,” he told the Globe. “If there are some people who call themselves Republicans who do not like that, well that’s their prerogative.”
But many of his critics, including high-ranking party officials, say he’s hardly welcoming to those who don’t share his beliefs, including Baker, whom he regularly disparages.
“If you’re not far right, we don’t even want you,” is Lyons’ message, said State Representative Shawn Dooley, who narrowly lost the GOP chairmanship to Lyons in January.
That approach hasn’t worked, Dooley said. ”His role is to grow the party as opposed to being a zealot . . . We’re on the precipice of becoming irrelevant.”
The spat could come to a head in 2022, when the governor is on the ballot. Baker hasn’t said whether he will run again, but a conservative former lawmaker and Lyons ally, Geoff Diehl, has emerged as a likely challenger.
Lyons says he will stay out of the primary, but his intraparty machinations, if successful, could clear the way for the GOP to send its endorsement and resources to a candidate challenging Baker from the right. Putting up a hardline conservative in a general election for governor would amount to forfeiting the race in liberal Massachusetts.
“I always believed that Chairman Lyons supported other Republicans — up until recently,” said Jaclyn Corriveau, a state committee member from Peabody. “Our opponents outnumber us so significantly that we don’t have the luxury of infighting like this.”
Lyons is 68, with a head of flour-white hair sometimes topped with a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat. He owns a family business, Dandi-Lyons, selling ice cream in the summer and Christmas trees in the winter. He can be genial and funny, even grandfatherly.
Lyons put his political skills to work for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign as Massachusetts chairman, once gathering more than 630 supporters at his barn in Andover for an event the campaign had hoped would muster a dozen. He battled hard for Cruz, even at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland when it was clear that Trump had enough delegates to clinch the nomination, several attendees recalled. Lyons directed Massachusetts delegates to ignore routine paperwork in an effort to derail Trump’s nomination, recalled Vincent DeVito, Trump’s campaign chair in Massachusetts.
“He always thinks he’s able to outsmart people,” DeVito said.
Lyons told the Globe he offered his public support to Trump after Cruz lost the Indiana primary in May.
One Republican state committee member said Lyons isn’t so different from Cruz: Unyielding in his beliefs.
“Jim is very strong on his values and he expresses them and he’s unafraid to defend them,” said Amanda Orlando, an ally on the Massachusetts Republican State Committee. “But I’ve never heard him express to any Republican who disagreed with him that he felt there was a problem with the disagreement.”
Still, Lyons has plenty of enemies. His Republican critics, many of them more moderate or allied with Baker, describe Lyons as short-sighted, tyrannical, and single-mindedly devoted to his own conservative politics. He is quick to temper, several people who have worked with him said, and can turn icy at minor provocation.
Lyons was elected to represent Andover in the State House in 2010, riding the Tea Party wave as a conservative small business owner preaching tax cuts. He lost to Democrat Tram Nguyen in 2018.
As a state lawmaker, Lyons employed much the same tack he has used as party chairman, pushing social issues with little chance in the Democratic-dominated Legislature. He sometimes went too far even for his fellow Republicans, often logging the lone vote against overwhelmingly popular measures, including the annual budget. Not a single bill on which he was the lead author became law.
“The power brokers on Beacon Hill did everything to stymie my efforts,” Lyons told the Globe.
Lyons earned a reputation as Beacon Hill’s chief abortion opponent, and pushed for a ballot question to repeal protections for transgender people, which failed. LGBTQ activists cheered when they learned he had lost his seat.
Lyons also led an unsuccessful effort to oust Republican minority leader Brad Jones in 2014. Lyons said at the time leaders needed “to be more aggressive” in promoting Republican values.
‘Are you a Baker Republican or a Trump Republican?’
On a Zoom call one evening this month with a dozen other Massachusetts Republicans, Lyons argued for severing ties between the party’s operation and Baker.
He wanted to strip Baker’s voting power on the state’s executive committee, arguing the party’s political efforts should be independent from elected officials. It wasn’t personal, Lyons said — “nothing negative about Charlie” — but structural.
Still, he couldn’t resist one dig.
“This governor and this lieutenant governor have done zero, since I took over, to help the party,” Lyons said, according to multiple sources on the call.
A committee backed the proposal, but it still requires approval from the full state committee, a vote scheduled for June 9.
Jim Conroy, a political adviser to Baker, noted that Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito did 49 fund-raisers for down-ballot Republicans in 2019 and 2020.
Lyons and Baker were aligned before they were at odds, supporting each other in elections.
But the relationship has chilled. Now, critics say, Lyons is working to consolidate his own power on the party’s 80-member state committee, where the process of filling three seats — critical to his slim majority — has brought allegations of discrimination and a lawsuit. Lyons denies any political gamesmanship.
Jeanna Tamas and Timothy Smyth Jr., candidates for the panel, turned to Lyons for guidance as they recruited supporters. Both recalled party officials, including Lyons, telling them to look for only “real Republicans” — those with animus against Baker.
Tamas recalled Lyons directing her to ask recruits: “Are you a Baker Republican or a Trump Republican?”
To them, it was the wrong approach.
“I love Donald Trump, and I don’t always agree with Charlie Baker. But he’s our Republican governor. He’s part of our party,” Tamas said.
Lyons denied directing them to ask the question, and said he considers his relationship with Baker “both friendly and professional.” But he had little praise for them, telling the Globe he hopes that as the pandemic recedes, Baker and Polito “are able to expend some effort on behalf of the Republican Party.”
Several state party officials said Lyons is singularly focused on ousting the governor, even if it means Republicans lose the office. Some believe Lyons would prefer a small, conservative Massachusetts Republican party over a larger, ideologically diverse one.
Lyons’ tactics make up a scorched earth policy that’s “all about getting rid of Baker,” one high-ranking party official said.
Infighting keeps the party from making progress, Republicans said.
“We have to stop attacking each other,” one prominent Republican said. “We’re like a bunch of cannibals.”
To others, though, the divisions — and conversations about distancing Baker from the party — are necessary.
“Yes, it does hurt our goal of beating Democrats. But this fight actually needs to happen or else we will continue in a downward spiral,” said Todd Taylor, a Republican state committeeman. “One side or the other has to win.”