When Massachusetts Republican Party activists huddle for their convention this weekend, their moderate standard-bearer for the last decade, Governor Charlie Baker, won’t be in Springfield. A Donald Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate is the favorite to win their endorsement. An antiabortion activist, a former Trump “border czar,” and a conservative Florida congressman are among the event’s headliners.
For years, the state GOP has been at war with itself, battling over which direction the party will go. Saturday’s gathering may give the answer: decidedly to the right.
Led by chairman Jim Lyons, the GOP’s quadrennial endorsing convention will shine a spotlight on the party apparatus’s shift toward a Trump-brand of conservatism, and away from the centrist Republican mold the party once followed to success in this deep-blue state.
Geoff Diehl, a former state lawmaker from Whitman endorsed by Trump, is widely expected to win the party’s endorsement for governor over first-time candidate Chris Doughty, whose path to reaching the September primary ballot is unclear, at best. Candidates must earn at least 15 percent of delegate votes at the convention to do so, and Doughty called it an “uphill battle.”
Baker, who’s not seeking reelection and has been the party’s endorsed candidate each cycle since 2010, won’t attend — an almost unheard-of development for a state party’s highest elected official.
And roughly half of the 3,000-plus delegates who qualified to attend aren’t expected to turn up at Springfield’s MassMutual Center either, whether because of the fees (tickets are $150), the draw of soaking up the weather (mid-80s and sunny), or other reasons.
Organizers said about 1,600 delegates will likely be on hand. That will leave the party’s “most active conservatives” to help chart its path through Election Day, said Amanda Orlando, Diehl’s campaign manager.
“People say, ‘Oh, the party shifted under Jim.’ It shifted before Jim, and he was elected because of that,” said Orlando, a GOP state committee member and Lyons ally. She pointed to the 2018 election, in which despite the party having “tons of money and tons of apparatus,” Baker and his running mate, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, were one of the few GOP successes.
Lyons first won the chairmanship two months later, and in the years since, has repeatedly battled publicly with — and sided with Trump against — the more moderate Baker. The party’s slim presence on Beacon Hill also has continued to wane, with the GOP losing five legislative seats in the 2020 election alone.
“The Republicans in this state [said], ‘This whole moderate perspective that we’ve run on, it’s not working, and we have to try something else,’” Orlando said. “The party shifted.”
That years-long pivot will be exemplified by the convention’s expected scope and tone. Beyond the statewide candidates — only the governor and lieutenant governor fields feature multiple candidates — the party has lined up speeches from Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who Trump named his “border czar” in 2019, and David Bereit, the former leader of 40 Days For Life, an antiabortion group.
The party’s past platform has frowned on abortion, though Baker, like his political lodestars and predecessors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, supports abortion rights.
US Representative Byron Donalds, a conservative Florida congressman, is billed as the convention’s keynote speaker, and is expected to discuss his state’s approach to handling COVID-19 while, according to Wendy Wakeman, the GOP convention manager, “protecting individual freedom.”
“The party for a long time has been a party about a person. That party served its purpose,” Wakeman said, referencing Baker. “The party under Jim Lyons is a party about ideas.”
And, to others, it’s a statement of ideology.
The convention’s message “frankly says for the next six months, through the November election, it’s a very conservative party,” said Amy Carnevale, a state committee member and Doughty backer who has supported both Baker and Trump.
Lyons won a second two-year term as chairman, promising to empower conservative and “pro-life voices” he and others say were long marginalized. The party’s conservative wing, which Lyons embodied during four terms in the state Legislature, was often “excluded from state politics,” said Jay Fleitman, the party’s vice chairman, while “the Boston wing of the party . . . really has had its hands on the levers of control of the party.”
“We’re not looking to exclude them, but incorporate the moderates and conservatives, and have everyone row in the same direction,” he said. “That is a little bit of an art form.”
Divisiveness, however, has defined the party. Critics say the hard swing right, and what they consider Lyons’s brash leadership through it, alienated large swaths of the state GOP’s 80-seat governing body, with quorum breaks and walkouts marring its last two meetings. Several members of the state committee also don’t plan to attend the convention, the party’s marquee event this year.
“This [convention] is a barometer of who Jim Lyons is,” said state Representative Shawn Dooley, who unsuccessfully challenged Lyons last year for the chairmanship. Dooley is backing Doughty for governor. “If it wasn’t for Chris, I would not be going. And I would say a majority of legislators are not going. They don’t want to be tied to the extremism.”
Several Republicans fear that conservative posture, particularly in deep-blue Massachusetts, threatens to set up an already shrinking minority party for embarrassing losses this fall.
A recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found both Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz — enjoying wide margins over their Republican opponents. The GOP statewide slate doesn’t even include a challenger for state treasurer.
On top of that, the party has struggled mightily to raise funds under Lyons, who also has been locked in a legal dispute with the party’s own treasurer.
Lyons declined to comment for this story.
The governor’s race may be the best illustration of the party’s direction. Doughty, a Wrentham Republican, first positioned himself as an option in an unfilled moderate lane, before quickly dismissing that label. He has since emphasized that he’s “fiscally conservative,” repeatedly called for tax relief, and argued that social issues that may animate some conservatives are not what’s driving most voters.
He also faces clear hurdles within the party itself. Diehl, who served in the Legislature from 2011 to 2019, has endeared himself to Republican activists over the years, and now sits on its party’s state committee. So does his wife, KathyJo Boss, the party’s secretary.
Diehl also works at 1A Auto, a company founded by Rick Green, a onetime congressional candidate and party chairman candidate who’s taken an increasing role under Lyons. In recent weeks, both Green and Lyons have signed off on fund-raising missives circulated by the party, with Green identified as “Finance Chair, Chairman’s Circle.” (The party itself does not list having a finance director.)
“It’s been an uphill battle, for sure,” Doughty said of reaching the 15 percent of delegate votes he needs to make the Sept. 6 ballot. He said when he pitches himself to delegates, he often cites former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was a sixth-round draft pick before building his Hall of Fame career.
“Sometimes the new player surprises,” he said. “I think I might just surprise people.”
Others have a different hope for the convention’s convention: some show — any, really — of harmony.
“Screw the infighting and project a unified image,” said Marty Lamb, a state committee member and Diehl supporter. “That’s where I try to stand. I don’t want to get into the mud.”