The Massachusetts Republican Party does not have a lot of money. It does not have a single seat in Congress, or sufficient power in the Legislature to undercut Democratic dominance, or even enough state senators to fill a hatchback sedan. It has less than 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, its lowest share since at least 1948. At a governing board meeting on Tuesday, the party, wracked by internal divisions, could not even muster a quorum.
But as has been true for most of the last 30 years, at least it has a governor.
After last week, when Charlie Baker said he will not seek the corner office in 2022, state Republicans may be on their way to losing even that claim to relevance. The once-formidable opposition party, now splintered into increasingly hostile factions, risks ceding Massachusetts entirely to Democrats.
In a tumultuous 24-hour span, the Massachusetts GOP learned it would lose its only two statewide office holders, gave up a seat in the state House, imploded at a routine meeting, and missed a threshold to put priority initiatives on the 2022 ballot.
The Massachusetts GOP “is an absolute disaster,” Jennifer Nassour, a former chairwoman of the state party, said as she searched for the right catastrophe metaphor, “that is on a path to be the Titanic. It is a runaway train. It is on a course to implode — they’re almost there.”
The impact of the party’s collapse, she said, will be felt by “all of the other voters in Massachusetts who want there to be a balance of power, who want to have an opposition party to vote for, and who are being failed by the political system.”
Baker — and Governors Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci, and William Weld before him — won by convincing Democrats and unenrolled voters to back a moderate, even-keeled Republican as a counterweight to a Democratic-dominated Legislature and congressional delegation. In the last few years, Baker has been the standard-bearer for a dwindling breed of centrist New England Republican, as the Massachusetts GOP itself grew steadily more conservative, and its leader became openly hostile to Baker and his ilk.
Those fractures — between conservative Donald Trump loyalists who say the party must hew closer to its hard-line platform, and establishment Republicans who say moderation is the only route to success in Massachusetts — are now on the verge of preventing the party from functioning at all. Critics of embattled GOP Chairman Jim Lyons staged a dramatic quorum break at a Republican State Committee meeting in Marlborough Tuesday night, an effort aimed at grinding its business to a halt. Lyons’s allies slammed the absent members as “Republicans in name only” willing to sacrifice party progress in order to undermine a chairman who has finally anchored the party in a Trump brand of conservatism.
The meeting debacle was just the start. Later Tuesday night, Republicans learned they had lost a special election for a North Shore House seat they’ve held for decades. State party leadership was not in touch with the campaign of Republican candidate Robert L. Snow, and did not spend any money on his behalf, a senior adviser to Snow said. Snow lost by about 500 votes in a contest that drew under 5,000 voters.
Then, on Wednesday morning, Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who was seen as his heir apparent, announced that neither of them would seek the governor’s office next year. And Wednesday evening, when the deadline struck, Republicans had missed the signature threshold to land their priority initiatives on the 2022 ballot.
That all comes in a year when the state party has publicly feuded with its best-known and most popular elected official, drawn national condemnation for a state committee member’s antigay remarks, lost its vice chairman in the wake of scandal, and seen its chairman embroiled in what the Globe has reported is a state grand jury probe of potential campaign finance violations.
Losing Baker on top of it all brings the party to its lowest point in decades, some longtime Massachusetts Republicans said. A few quietly fear the state won’t elect another Republican governor for a generation.
“This is objectively what failure looks like,” said Jaclyn Corriveau, a state committee member from Peabody.
“Rebuilding” would be “the best way to look at” where the party is now, she added. “But I don’t think that much can get rebuilt under Lyons.”
Lyons and his allies frame the party’s recent fortunes differently. Lyons, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote off the failed signature-gathering campaign for proposed 2022 ballot measures as a partial victory, pointing in a news release to voter outreach and engagement that “will serve us well in 2022 and beyond.” In particular, he celebrated a signature push taking aim at the Transportation Climate Initiative, a controversial cap-and-invest pact that would have led to substantial cuts to transportation emissions, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases. That measure also did not make the ballot, but Baker pulled the state out of the ambitious climate change program after some Republicans vocally opposed it, a pivot they attributed to their advocacy. (Baker advisers said Massachusetts was pulling out because there was not enough support from other states.)
Allies say Lyons is bringing the party closer in line with the planks of its platform, a conservative wish list passed by activists at the party convention. Winning elections doesn’t matter if the victorious Republicans won’t push for those priorities, they argue. And to some of them, the exit of Baker — who conservative critics say never fought for party principles despite the “R” next to his name — is no loss at all.
“Charlie Baker was a Democrat. So it doesn’t really matter,” said Steve Aylward, a Lyons ally who served on the state committee until recently. As for the dozens of Republicans who skipped the party meeting last week, he said, “the less involved they are, the better, because they’re not real Republicans.”
Just a few years ago, the party had millions flowing through its campaign coffers. Now, less than a year out from a statewide election, its cash stockpile is a fraction of that, and numerous insiders say the organization is in tatters. A document listing anticipated party costs and revenue for 2022, circulated to the state committee and obtained by the Globe, does not allocate a single dollar for “campaign support.”
“TBD,” the row reads.
The influence of the party apparatus itself has waxed and waned over the years, and longtime Republicans say it has always had factions. But the party’s role is all the more central in a year when Republicans don’t have Baker to rally around as a standard bearer or lean on for campaign help. And it’s more fractured than ever. Lyons’s critics don’t have the two-thirds majority they’d need to oust him from leadership, but they have enough support to repeatedly deny him a quorum in an effort to bring the party’s business to a halt.
The immediate challenge for Massachusetts Republicans will be mounting a party convention next spring, and fielding a competitive gubernatorial candidate months later.
The first major GOP candidate in the race was Geoff Diehl, a conservative former state lawmaker with Trump’s endorsement who lost to Elizabeth Warren by 24 percentage points in a 2018 US Senate bid. Trump’s endorsement makes Diehl a formidable opponent in a primary, but it’s all but disqualifying in a general election race in blue Massachusetts. Even some Republicans who support Diehl have little confidence he could win a general election.
Weld, a Republican who was elected governor in 1990 said Diehl, like Lyons, “seems to think that he’s obliged to adopt this sneering tone to ingratiate himself with Trump.”
“He’s got to stop that or he is going absolutely nowhere in this state,” Weld added.
At times during his tenure, Weld had enough Republican votes in the Senate — 14 or more — to sustain his veto. Now, there are just three Republican senators.
In the wake of Baker’s announcement, party faithful including Nassour are working to recruit a more centrist candidate capable of winning over the state’s huge share of unenrolled voters. Nassour declined to speculate about who might emerge, but other operatives have floated a number of names.
Some Republicans have their eyes on Andrew Lelling, the former US attorney who led the high-profile Varsity Blues college admissions scandal case.
More conservative candidates have also made their interest known. Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell is considering a bid, a spokesperson confirmed, and Shiva Ayyadurai, who has run both as an independent candidate and as a Republican in statewide races, is launching a Republican bid for governor, he recently announced.
Some hold onto hope that the state GOP will turn its fortunes around.
Dan Winslow, a former Republican state representative and legal counsel to Romney who believes that with the right messenger, GOP principles can win the state, put it in optimistic terms: “The value of being at a low point is that things are looking up.”