A little-watched legislative contest on the northeast coast of Massachusetts could be a bellwether for the bitterly divided state GOP, as party leaders consider throwing their support behind Samson Racioppi, a right-wing agitator who led a 2019 “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston and organized buses to Washington, D.C., for the protest that became the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Split between more moderate Republicans who embrace Governor Charlie Baker and hard-line conservatives who back Donald Trump, the state GOP has struggled to win legislative seats and sustain much political influence in this reliably blue state. Now, thanks to a quirk of timing and the recent departure of the only Republican on the primary ballot, the incumbent James Kelcourse, party leaders — rather than district voters — will likely decide which GOP candidate to nominate for the First Essex District House seat representing Salisbury, Newburyport, Merrimac, and parts of Amesbury.
Will they embrace an extreme wing of their party and choose Racioppi, in a move that critics fear would risk a precious state House seat? Or will they instead back C.J. Fitzwater, his more moderate rival, who favors abortion rights and supports the state’s stricter gun control laws?
Since 2019, the Mass. GOP has been led by Chairman Jim Lyons, a brash Trump supporter who critics say has stunted the party by attacking any Republicans who don’t share his conservative views — chief among them Baker, the enviably popular GOP governor and moderate standard-bearer. Moderate Republicans are losing what little foothold they had in the party with Baker’s decision not to seek reelection. Nominating Racioppi would solidify the state GOP’s hard-line position in a year when some of its endorsed candidates for statewide office have embraced Trump’s falsehoods about election fraud and made vulgar, baseless claims about sex education in public schools.
As a leader of the right-wing group Super Happy Fun America, Racioppi helped organize a 2019 “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston and a 2020 pro-police event at the State House that attracted white supremacists, including some who carried a Nazi flag; one displayed a swastika tattoo. Racioppi, a recent law school graduate, has faced professional consequences for leading those events, and for attending and organizing buses to the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Racioppi said in an interview that he did not enter the Capitol.) He was pressured to resign from his leadership position at a prominent cannabis advocacy organization, and some of his classmates at New England Law School called for him to be investigated.
Racioppi defends his advocacy as peaceful, tongue-in-cheek protests, and says he has always made clear to neo-Nazi attendees that they are not welcome at his events. But researchers who study the far right say his group serves as an entry point into far-right extremism and normalizes radical ideas.
For moderate Republicans clinging to whatever power they do hold in the state, Racioppi’s potential nomination presents major risks.
“It’s a challenging seat under the best of circumstances,” said Brad Jones, the Republican state House minority leader, pointing to close margins between Republicans and Democrats in recent House elections in that district. Choosing Racioppi, he said, would present “a real concern.”
“One, it’s not necessarily putting forward the strongest candidate to win the seat in question,” Jones said. “And two, the fact is that the candidate you choose is potentially a reflection on the party or the entire ticket.”
At a Republican event in Billerica earlier this month, Racioppi posed with Lyons, along with a number of other top Massachusetts Republicans, including Geoff Diehl, the Trump-endorsed candidate likely to be the GOP nominee for governor, and Rayla Campbell, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, who made headlines earlier this year when she claimed without evidence that Massachusetts public schools are teaching young children to perform sex acts on one another.
Asked whether he was concerned about Racioppi’s participation in Jan. 6 and the Straight Pride Parade, Diehl said he had no comment.
As chairman of the party, Lyons has not taken a position in the contest, he told the Globe at an unrelated event this week. Asked whether Racioppi is someone the party could support, Lyons said, “I am not going to speculate on what happens.”
Racioppi said he has not been promised the party’s support but added that his values “are more aligned” with those of the chairman than Fitzwater’s.
“The fact that I’ve come across Jim and that we’ve been formally introduced and had some conversations, I think is a good thing,” Racioppi said. “But I wouldn’t even fully say that he supports me 100 percent.”
Both Racioppi and Fitzwater will run as write-in candidates in the Sept. 6 primary, but state party officials are not required to nominate the candidate who receives more votes. The unusual nominating procedure comes after Kelcourse left his seat in June for a post at the Parole Board. His name is the only one that will appear on the primary ballot, but he intends to withdraw from contention, he told the Globe, meaning the nomination decision will almost certainly fall to state party officials.
State law indicates that the choice should fall to the party’s executive committee, a group of roughly 20 that includes Lyons and his allies, as well as more moderate party voices. But Jones, who is a member of the executive committee, said in similar circumstances in the past, such decisions have been made more informally, sometimes just by the party chairman. Lyons did not respond to questions about the process.
Fitzwater said he is the right candidate to represent the district, which Republicans have held since 2015, often beating Democratic opponents by slim margins. Fitzwater said GOP officials told him the party will make its choice based on which candidate wins the most support as a write-in during the primary, as well as which candidate has the superior organization and fund-raising. Fitzwater, a general manager for Northeast Auto Auction, has raised thousands more dollars than Racioppi so far and argues he is best positioned to beat a Democrat in November.
State party leaders have shown a preference for “a Trump-type candidate,” Fitzwater acknowledged, “but I am an organized candidate.”
“I’m not going to kowtow to an extremist right-wing party that supports a president who lost an election, that supports radical ideas that are contrary to conservative Massachusetts values,” Fitzwater said. “I’m going to be who I am. And if they decide that they do not want to nominate me based on that, then they can have the party they want.”
Currently, Republicans hold just 27 seats of 160 in the state House and just 3 of 40 seats in the state Senate, representation that has dwindled during Lyons’ tenure as party leader.
Two Democratic candidates also are running write-in campaigns for the seat: Byron Lane, a Newburyport city councilor, and Dawne Shand, who is taking a leave from her position atop the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus to run for office. So long as one candidate wins at least 150 write-in votes, the person with the most support will be the Democrats’ nominee for the seat in November.
For Democrats, the potential for Racioppi to win the nomination makes the race all the more important to win.
“The hate and intolerance reported about one of the Republican candidates in this race is abhorrent,” said Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “We look forward to supporting the Democratic nominee to ensure all people are seen, heard, and represented on Beacon Hill.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.