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OPINION

The clown show at the state GOP

Chairman Jim Lyons seems intent on piloting the party onto the rocks of irrelevance.

Jim Lyons, chair of the Republican Party in Massachusetts, spoke from the back of a truck at a rally in Wilmington on Aug. 16, 2020.
Jim Lyons, chair of the Republican Party in Massachusetts, spoke from the back of a truck at a rally in Wilmington on Aug. 16, 2020.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

An inflection point? Not quite — so let’s call it an inspection point.

The report that state prosecutors are calling witnesses to a grand jury about a potentially illegal campaign-aid arrangement by a GOP state senator and Republican State Committee chairman Jim Lyons provides a wide-angle lens through which to assess the chaos that prevails at the state committee under Lyons.

The news, broken by the Globe’s Emma Platoff, shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance referred the matter to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office because it looks like an attempt to disguise the true source of campaign contributions. In the 2020 election cycle, Senator Ryan Fattman of Sutton contributed a total of $137,000 to the state party, which spent $136,405 to help the senator’s wife, Stephanie, in her reelection bid as Worcester County register of probate.

Lyons has tried to portray the investigation as politically motivated. But whatever happens with this specific case — and when grand juries hear evidence, indictments often follow — it underlines a larger point: If Democratic dirty tricksters had somehow managed to install a political double agent as chief of the Republican State Committee, such a secret saboteur could hardly have done a better job than Lyons of damaging the state party.

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The current state committee staff could fit into the back seat of a Mini Cooper. The party’s fund-raising is so anemic there are doubts it will have the resources to hold a convention next year. In June, Lyons shrugged when a close ally sent a homophobic e-mail about one of the party’s candidates for Congress. In the Boston preliminary election, Lyons backed a city council candidate who had made xenophobic social media posts about mayoral candidate Michelle Wu.

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Well, a casual observer might reply, at least the Massachusetts Republican Party has one of the most popular governors in the nation, in the person of Charlie Baker, who is currently agonizing over whether to seek a third term.

Ah, but Lyons is at war with Baker, whom he calls a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). That, even though Lyons once ran for office as a Democrat — and Baker has been a Republican since he first registered to vote. This is how bizarre the situation has become. Lyons, the Massachusetts Republican Party chairman, is now trying to raise money for the state party by attacking the state’s Republican governor.

Although Lyons no longer controls a majority of state committee members, neither is there the two-thirds majority needed to push him out midterm. But that could change. In September, he adjourned the monthly state committee meeting without offering a requested update on the campaign finance investigation. Thus, sources say, the Globe’s grand jury story left many state committee members stunned — and upset with Lyons.

Meanwhile, the investigation has past and present staffers terrified, according to one former party official.

“It’s like working in the Nixon White House,” said another knowledgeable source. With this exception: Richard Nixon was a skilled politician who actually won a good many elections.

Which highlights the great irony of the state party’s current situation. Recall that Lyons ran for state committee chairman after losing his bid for reelection as Andover state representative in 2018. Now the man who couldn’t hold a state rep’s seat is leading an effort to undermine Baker, an accomplished governor who won a reelection landslide in the same year that Lyons lost.

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As part of his anti-Baker effort, Lyons recently helped persuade Donald Trump to endorse the gubernatorial candidacy of Geoff Diehl, a one-time Democrat who served four terms as a GOP state rep from Whitman, lost a 2018 US Senate bid, and is now an employee of 1A Auto. Sound familiar? That’s the online auto-parts outfit of Rick Green, the state committee’s finance chairman, a close ally of Lyons, and another bitter anti-Baker conservative.

“As you know, the head of the Republican Party, who I think is a terrific guy . . . said, we have a wonderful candidate that he thinks will do very well,” Trump recounted recently to local talk radio host and Trump acolyte Howie Carr, explaining why he is backing Diehl.

Now, when you consider that, in 2019, 36 percent of GOP gubernatorial primary voters cast a ballot for Scott Lively, the right-wing reactionary who thinks gay people caused the Holocaust, Trump’s backing certainly could help boost Diehl in the primary. That said, thus far Diehl, busy trafficking in Trumpist rhetoric on masks and vaccine mandates, hasn’t demonstrated the ability to raise the kind of money needed to wage a competitive candidacy.

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Further, Trump’s endorsement would be the kiss of death in a general election in Massachusetts. So in a larger sense, Diehl is on something of a fool’s errand.

And there he has a fitting ally in the Republican State Committee’s train wreck of a chairman.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.