fb-pixel Skip to main content

After disastrous election, the state GOP faces a choice: Fresh leadership or more of the same?

Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, spoke during Geoff Diehl's election watch party last month.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

In the last four years, the deeply divided Massachusetts Republican Party has lost races for governor, lieutenant governor, more than a dozen legislative seats, and every statewide office and congressional seat, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars from its campaign account and about 30,000 registered voters.

Yet the man who presided over the series of defeats as the chairman of the state Republican Party, Jim Lyons, is not only likely to pursue reelection in January, party operatives said, but could prevail.

On the heels of a midterm election that rebuked former president Donald Trump and the extremist candidates who follow his lead, the state GOP finds itself at a crossroads, gripped by an identity crisis. For years, the party has been split between conservatives who back Lyons and Trump, and more moderate Republicans in the mold of departing Governor Charlie Baker.

Advertisement



The chairman’s election will force the party to decide: opt for new leadership and a new approach, or continue its hard-line tactics that risk losing more races, money, and membership?

Some in the party fear that Republicans, already endangered in Massachusetts politics, could become completely irrelevant if party leaders don’t recalibrate.

“There is either real change on the horizon or there is no Republican Party in Massachusetts,” said state Representative Shawn Dooley, who lost the 2021 party chair race to Lyons in a close vote. “It’s now or never.”

Lyons did not return multiple requests for comment.

Critics say Lyons’s leadership has cost the GOP talent, support, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fund-raising. During his four-year tenure, the party has been plagued by chaos and scandal. Amid tensions between Lyons and Baker, the state party dismantled a lucrative joint fund-raising agreement with the Republican National Committee, which had brought in millions of dollars.

Advertisement



The state committee, the party’s 80-member governing board, has not met for a year, after its last two gatherings in December 2021 and January 2022 ended abruptly in a boycott and a walkout, respectively, leaving too few members for a quorum. A state grand jury has heard testimony about potential campaign finance violations by Lyons and other Republicans; separately, Lyons is suing the party treasurer, and as part of the lawsuit has deposed a number of fellow Republicans, including a front-runner in the race to replace him.

In the wake of homophobic and racist comments by Lyons allies, such as one member who said she was “sickened” that a gay couple had adopted children, national Republican figures distanced themselves from the party. In October 2021, Baker called for Lyons to resign. Meanwhile, a number of seats have been vacant for more than a year, a deliberate move, critics say, by Lyons to keep political opponents off the party’s governing body.

Representative Lenny Mirra, a Georgetown Republican whose race for reelection is headed to a recount, said the party wasn’t just unhelpful this year, but “they actually dragged us down.”

“We had a guy at the top who killed us down-ballot,” said Mirra, who endorsed Chris Doughty in the GOP gubernatorial primary over nominee Geoff Diehl, a Trump-backed conservative who went on to lose the general election by nearly 30 percentage points.

Critics say the GOP’s internal battles and electoral losses reflect weak leadership. Instead of attempting to broaden its appeal, the state party has isolated members and stirred up internal strife.

Advertisement



Lyons has twice tried to remove Ron Kaufman, a moderate Massachusetts Republican who served as George H.W. Bush’s political director, from his position as longtime treasurer of the Republican National Committee. In a letter signed by 19 state committee members, Lyons asked the RNC to “consider someone else” for the position.

Massachusetts Republican Janet Fogarty, who is also a member of the national committee, fired back this week in an e-mail to supporters, slamming Lyons for conducting a “vendetta” against Kaufman and accusing him of trying to distract from the party’s catastrophic losses here. More than three dozen members of the state committee and other prominent Republican officials also signed letters of support for Kaufman.

“We once had a Republican Party that competed for high office and won,” veteran GOP consultant Eric Fehrnstrom said. “Now they are fighting over parking spaces and who has access to the elevator key.”

The next chair of the party will be elected by the state committee, which currently has 75 members, according to a letter dated this week from the vice chair.

With that election looming, Republican insiders say the state committee has begun to split into pro-Lyons and “anyone but Lyons” factions, so far of roughly equal size. While Lyons has not formally announced his candidacy, many state committee members expect him to run.

Amy Carnevale, a state committee member from Marblehead who has worked to maintain allies within both conservative and moderate factions, is exploring a run and seen as a front-runner in the nascent contest. Carnevale said the party needs to move away from the Lyons approach that has lost countless elections.

Advertisement



“One of the messages of this election is that we need to broaden the base of our party, and efforts that are not aimed at doing that will continue to hurt us,” she said.

Declared candidates include Jon Fetherston, who has held various positions in Ashland town government,, current vice chair Jay Fleitman, and Christopher Lyon, a longtime political consultant.

“We desperately need to start winning,” Lyon said. “Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.’ We have kind of lost that.”

Supporters of Lyons, the current chairman, said that having Baker in the governor’s office didn’t serve the party, especially given his icy relationship with the chairman. The governor’s more moderate supporters peeled off to form a political committee of their own, and his popularity did not translate into down-ballot wins, Lyons’s supporters point out. Lyons and his backers call Baker a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only — a nickname appropriated by Trump.

Wendy Wakeman, a GOP activist, said she is “despondent” over the lost races but has faith Lyons can build the party into a new, stronger iteration. She said that it must unite behind the “enemy” — a.k.a. Democratic Governor-elect Maura Healey — and that she’ll support Lyons “until a better ship comes along.”

Advertisement



“You get to the end of [the cycle] and say, ‘Is it even worth being a Republican? Does working as a Republican operative have any meaning in Massachusetts?’ ” said Wakeman, who coordinated the unsuccessful ballot campaign to repeal a new law that allows residents without legal immigration status to apply for driver’s licenses. “I feel I have been kicked in the head. But I feel those ideas are worth working for.”

While the party lost big in legislative races, some in the GOP found hope in the results of the driver’s license question, which they lost by 7 percentage points — far closer than any statewide Republican candidate came to besting a Democrat. Some Republicans say their side could have eked out a win if the party had better fund-raising and organization.

They fear that without new leadership, there is no stopping the party’s backslide into irrelevance, and that the moderate Republicans who have had electoral success here will have no reason to work with the state party.

If Lyons wins, the party could “see a mass exodus of the more reasonable and competent members,” said state committee member Mike Valanzola, warning of dried up fund-raising and a closed party headquarters.

“That’s the picture if [Lyons] wins again. There’ll be nothing left but him in his barn.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross. Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.