As the Massachusetts GOP continues to disintegrate around them, moderate Republican candidates running on the 2022 ballot have one major ally in their corner.
Governor Charlie Baker — whose decision not to seek reelection robbed Republicans of their best shot at holding the corner office — said in an interview with the Globe on Thursday that he will remain active in the state’s political world even as he prepares to leave office. He intends to advise, campaign alongside, and raise money for like-minded candidates in his moderate mold, he said, and will help a PAC closely aligned with him raise an anticipated $2 million to support centrist candidates in both parties.
Baker said he’s not prepared to abandon the state to unchallenged Democratic control despite his decision to step back from elected office, and will work to ensure there are still “two teams on the field” — and a number of prominent voices in the middle.
“The fact that we’re at a point in time where so many people aren’t listening to anybody other than their own voice — it’s incredibly distressing to me,” Baker said. “The idea that I would just walk away from that when it’s so inconsistent with almost everything I believe about the way government and the way politics should work — that wouldn’t make any sense.”
How a lame-duck Baker will wield his ample political capital is a significant question — particularly as the party he heads devolves into ever-deeper disarray. One of the most popular governors in the country, Baker has long been the Massachusetts Republican Party’s best face and fund-raiser, notching decisive victories for the red team in a state with a deep blue reputation, in part by distancing himself from former president Donald Trump and avoiding national political scrums.
With Baker leaving office, the struggling minority party risks losing what little relevance it still has. In this fall’s elections, Republicans could cede even greater ground to Democrats, who are well-positioned to sweep statewide offices and already boast veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
The state GOP itself is hardly in a position to stall that decline. Recently, the party has struggled to even hold routine meetings and pay regular expenses, let alone tackle crucial tasks like candidate recruitment and fund-raising, amid increasingly bitter internal disputes between those who back its Trump-supporting chairman, Jim Lyons, and those who hew closer to Baker’s moderate lane.
“It’s no secret that Jim Lyons and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” Baker said. Now, the party’s internal drama is preventing it from performing its key functions, he said.
Political parties are supposed to “number one, raise money to support candidates; number two, create a message that will resonate with voters on Election Day; and number three, have the ground force in place to support those candidates in ways that go beyond just raising money,” Baker said. “I don’t think the party is delivering on any of those objectives right now.”
The party’s soap opera antics have grown almost routine. Its last two state committee meetings dissolved for lack of a quorum — the first, in late November, due to a boycott, the most recent, in late January, after a walkout. The attorney general’s office’s probe into alleged campaign finance violations by the party chairman and other Republicans — on which a grand jury has heard testimony, the Globe has reported — remains “an ongoing matter,” a spokeswoman for the attorney general said this week. And campaign finance data show the party had under $75,000 in its state account, less than one-sixth of what it had four years ago ahead of the last statewide election cycle.
But the infighting reached a new pitch this week, when Lyons sued the party treasurer, Patrick Crowley, alleging “intentional, unlawful, interference with the business affairs of the MassGOP” and “breach of his fiduciary duties.” Crowley had frozen the party’s bank account, he wrote in e-mails obtained by the Globe, refusing to authorize any payments because he said the party budget had not been passed by a quorum of the state committee. Lyons argued in court documents that the budget was approved without objection, after a quorum had been established earlier in the meeting. But several attendees said the budget vote took place only after a number of state committee members had walked out of the meeting, leaving far too few in the room to legally conduct business.
Lyons, a party spokesman, and Crowley did not return requests for comment.
The meeting underscores how the party’s factions seem to exist in two alternate realities: one in which the party’s woes are caused by Baker-loving RINOs (“Republicans in name only”) who’ve abandoned crucial party principles, and another where the culprits are Lyons’s purity tests and brash tactics.
The two factions are unable to agree even on what happened at their most recent state committee meeting. One short set of meeting minutes, prepared by the party’s communications director, Evan Lips, details a perfectly routine session. Another, longer set compiled by assistant secretary Lindsay Valanzona describes a chaotic meeting, during which Lyons threatened to have more than one state committee member ejected by security.
Meanwhile, the party faces a challenging election cycle, and has yet to put forward candidates for several major statewide offices. Recruiting those candidates is “a fundamental role of the party,” Baker said.
Amid the chaos, Republicans including Baker are organizing support systems for Republican candidates outside the party infrastructure.
Jennifer Nassour, a former chair of the MassGOP, said her advice to candidates this cycle is to “distance themselves from the MassGOP and the infighting.”
“It’s unfortunate that we have to separate ourselves from the actual existing Massachusetts Republican Party apparatus, because it has broken down, it is malfunctioning,” Nassour said. “There’s no one I would send to go to one of those trainings, or for support from the MassGOP.”
Nassour runs the Pocketbook Project, a training program for centrist women candidates that she said is helping candidates prepare.
For his part, Baker intends to continue fund-raising for the Massachusetts Majority PAC, which is led by one of his donors and has tapped the Republican’s campaign staff for consulting work in the past. Baker said the PAC operates in his “sweet spot ideologically” and was the biggest supporter of Republican candidates in the last election cycle. It had more than $900,000 in its account at the end of 2021, and Baker said he expects it to raise $2 million this cycle, as it has in past election seasons. Baker also has more than $600,000 in his own campaign account, some of which he said will be made available to candidates he supports.
“I’m trying to help people where I can,” Baker said. “My relationships are going to be directly with candidates, because I don’t have a relationship with the leadership of the party.”
Baker’s expected financial contributions are among the few bright spots in the party’s dismal forecast.
“Nobody of any intellect would give a penny to the MassGOP as long as Jim Lyons is the chair,” said Mike Valanzola, a state committee member who attended a recent gathering with Baker and other Republicans. He said he and other Republicans will aim to outmaneuver Lyons, raise money through outside PACs, and collaborate with legislative leadership to recruit candidates.
Still, Valanzola noted, it’s a far cry from past years, when Baker was aligned with party leadership and a joint fund-raising effort with the Republican National Committee helped pump millions of dollars into state party coffers by taking advantage of the higher campaign contribution limits in federal law. Under Lyons’s leadership, the party allowed the lucrative collaboration to dissolve in 2019, widening the rift between Baker and the chairman.
For all his plans to stay involved, Baker on Thursday declined to make predictions about the race for governor, or even say whom he might support. Geoff Diehl, a vocal Baker critic and one of the Republican candidates vying for the nomination, is running with Trump’s endorsement and aided by Trump’s former campaign manager. The other GOP contender, businessman Chris Doughty, has taken a moderate approach more reminiscent of Baker.
And the governor said he hasn’t thought much yet about what life may look like when he leaves his State House office for the last time. But his home and his family are in Massachusetts, and his ties to the state’s political scene are likely to remain strong, he said.
“I can’t imagine a scenario in which I wouldn’t continue to be involved in one way or another,” Baker said. “It’s just kind of the way I’m built.”