Governor Charlie Baker is leaving office next year. His exit from Massachusetts GOP politics may not be so swift.
Weeks after announcing he won’t seek reelection, Baker’s campaign paid $100,000 to help fund a Republican activist’s sinuous legal fight to secure a seat on the Republican State Committee, the state GOP’s obscure governing body, which Baker has tried for years to seed with like-minded, moderate allies.
Baker disclosed the Dec. 20 payment to the Ashcroft Law Firm, which represented candidate Nicaela Chinnaswamy, in records his campaign filed this month with state regulators.
It’s not the first time Baker has pumped money into a State Committee contest. But it signaled he could remain a force within a state party that’s become bitterly divided between Baker-aligned Republicans and conservative members who rose to power within its ranks in the era of Donald Trump.
Baker’s political team raised and spent vast sums of undisclosed funds in 2016 and 2020 to help influence races for the committee’s 80 seats — down-ballot contests that are decided the same day as the presidential primary and whose winners hold significant sway on the makeup of party leadership.
One man and one woman serve from each state Senate district, and together the committee acts as the governing body of the party, with responsibilities that include picking the party chairman every other year.
Baker’s team spent as much as $1 million across at least 40 such races in 2016 only to see the state committee three years later reject his candidate for chairman in favor of Jim Lyons, a social conservative and Trump supporter with whom Baker has hotly feuded the last three years.
Baker also used hundreds of thousands of dollars on the 2020 slate of committee races, the Globe reported. While State Committee races appear on the public ballot, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance does not regulate spending on those contests, nor are expenditures required to be disclosed.
Still, Baker’s six-figure expense last month forged new ground, both in its timing and amount. Baker said on Dec. 1 he is not seeking reelection to an unprecedented third consecutive four-year term, putting a coda on his time in state office.
At $100,000, the payment toward Chinnaswamy’s legal fees was not only the second-largest non-election year expenditure his campaign has ever made — he has other legal bills that surpassed it — it left Baker with just $731,000 in a war chest that once brimmed with millions.
It also went toward a messy legal and political fight that may not be over.
A state judge in October ordered Massachusetts election officials to certify Chinnaswamy as winning a spot on the State Committee, more than 600 days after only a few dozen voters had cast ballots in the obscure race. Errors by Boston election workers had marred the original results after they undercounted write-in votes and, even when they were corrected in a recount an entire year later, state officials refused to recertify them.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whom Chinnaswamy successfully sued to recognize her victory, sent a letter to Lyons on Nov. 30 informing him Chinnaswamy was the “successful candidate” in the Second Suffolk district. A write-in candidate, she officially won with 65 votes, topping two others who also ran write-in campaigns and earned 50 and 37, respectively.
Galvin, however, himself does not have the power to compel the party to act. And even though an attorney for the Massachusetts GOP once told the court it would seat Chinnaswamy if Galvin certified her as the winner, it has yet to do so months later.
The spot is currently filled by Eleanor C. Greene, who finished second in voting in the March 2020 race and was selected during an internal caucus the party held while Chinnaswamy’s legal battle dragged on.
Should the party not seat Chinnaswamy, it threatens to extend a strange, nearly two-year-long saga — and one that now includes Baker.
Political candidates are barred from using their campaign accounts to cover expenses for civil suits, though it does allow for exceptions, including if the legal action is intended “primarily to protect or further the interests of the political committee.” State law also includes a broader allowance for campaign spending if it ensures the “enhancement of the political future of the candidate.”
Jim Conroy, a Baker adviser, framed the payment as an attempt to help seat a successful candidate. Chinnaswamy had run with the support of establishment Republicans such as former state party chairwoman Jennifer Nassour, a Baker ally.
“The Governor was happy to support Nicaela’s effort to make sure the will of Boston voters was honored,” Conroy said in a statement.
Lyons had publicly railed against Boston election officials after the recount found some votes went uncounted last March, charging that city officials were in the “pocket of the Democrat Party machine” and had “actively disenfranchised Republican voters.”
He declined to comment Thursday on the situation or Baker’s payment.
Michael Sullivan, a former Massachusetts US Attorney and Republican US Senate candidate who helped represent Chinnaswamy, said in a statement that Lyons had “opposed her throughout the litigation” but that her client hopes he “will reverse course and do what his lawyer represented to the court he would do if she were declared the winner: seat her.”
“The fact that Chairman Lyons is still resisting the voters’ will casts grave doubt on his claims of wanting integrity in our elections,” Sullivan said.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.