WOBURN — Amy Carnevale knew when she took the helm of the Massachusetts Republican Party in February that she faced a big job. But even she didn’t realize the scope of the mess she inherited.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, the four lawsuits, the tangle of campaign finance probes, the record of electoral failure, and the reputation for dysfunction — those were on her radar. But the week after her election as the new party chair, the state GOP was slapped with another six-figure bill, yet another debt the party is disputing. Then came two new lawsuits. And now, in the wake of repeated omissions and errors on campaign finance reports under prior leadership, she’s expecting an audit from the Federal Elections Commission, alongside a similar probe from state regulators.
Amid all that: There are municipal elections in just a few short months, legislative contests, and, most prominently a US Senate race next year, with no viable Republican candidate in sight to challenge Elizabeth Warren. Somehow Carnevale must steer the GOP boat to electoral victory, before she has bailed out all the water or even plugged the holes.
Job number one is “stabilizing the party,” Carnevale said in a recent interview, “and it’s going to take some time.” She was sitting in the party’s headquarters at an office park in Woburn, a graveyard of Republican could-have-beens: hundreds of lawn signs for a ballot question that failed last year; empty, still-messy offices once used by staff the party can no longer afford to pay.
“I said this is going to be a long-term effort,” said Carnevale, 52. “You need a party infrastructure and a party message that is complementary to getting Republicans elected. And that message has been off track for the last four years.”
In that period, Massachusetts Republicans have lost a governor and lieutenant governor, as well as every race they’ve run for statewide office and Congress, not to mention a slate of legislative seats, hundreds of thousands of dollars from the party’s campaign account, and about 30,000 registered voters. Meanwhile, the party has been bitterly split between the more moderate Republicans who backed former governor Charlie Baker and ideological conservatives who supported former GOP state chair Jim Lyons — divides so bitter they kept the party’s governing body from formally meeting for a year for lack of a quorum. And under Lyons, the GOP was plagued by allegations of campaign finance violations in a number of cases, including one in which a state grand jury heard testimony.
Carnevale, who twice served as a Donald Trump delegate, pitched herself as someone who could bridge the party’s divides, though she won the chair’s race with support from the anti-Lyons faction. In four months as chair, she has begun to rebuild, cooperating with campaign finance regulators and hiring a new compliance firm to manage those issues. She’s resolved three of the four lawsuits she inherited, and is grappling with the new ones. By the end of the month, she will have held seven caucuses to account for vacancies and a resignation on the 80-member Republican State Committee, bringing the party’s governing body to full strength for the first time in years.
Amid ongoing financial challenges, the party staff has been whittled to one, executive director John Milligan, with another hire expected in coming weeks. Carnevale, who kept her job as a lobbyist for K&L Gates, is not drawing a salary. She has brought on a fund-raising consultant who works on commission, and is forming a fund-raising committee chaired by former state housing and economic development secretary Mike Kennealy. She has scheduled fund-raisers with Baker and Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel — events that would have been hard to imagine under Lyons, who sparred publicly with Baker and drew an indirect rebuke from McDaniel.
With some of that work behind her, Carnevale said she can start looking to the future. But the party is still operating in the red, and Carnevale acknowledges that raising money has been more difficult than she anticipated.
“When all the stories come out about an organization you’re running that is in debt, and the last person left you with bills that you’re still going through . . . it becomes difficult to make the pitch about what you’re going to do in the future,” said Jennifer Nassour, a former chair of the state GOP.
“It took Jim Lyons four years to take the whole thing down and tear it apart,” she added. “It’s going to take Amy a little while to build it back up again.”
And there is still the problem of the Senate race against Warren, something of a Catch-22. Republicans have no hope to prevail without a strong candidate backed by solid party funding and infrastructure. But without a viable US Senate candidate at the top of the ticket, the party is struggling to do the fund-raising required to rebuild.
“It takes money to make money,” said Janet Fogarty, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts. But Fogarty said Carnevale is “fair-minded” and “even-keeled” — “the right temperament” to build trust and, eventually, a bench of candidates for future races.
So far, no credible Republican candidate has publicly expressed interest in the Senate race. Neither Baker nor former lieutenant governor Karyn Polito will seek the nomination, a spokesperson said. And Massachusetts is not on the national party’s radar as a state with a flippable Senate seat, meaning outside money will likely be hard to come by.
“Being the chair of the Mass GOP is a bit like being the head of the Yankees fan club in Boston,” said Republican pollster Jon McHenry.
The Senate race is a particularly hard hurdle to clear, especially in a presidential election year, which one GOP consultant described as “the absolute worst environment.” Even stronger, better financed past iterations of the state Republican Party struggled to recruit for the race, said the consultant, Rob Gray.
Republicans haven’t elected a senator here since Scott Brown’s surprising 2010 victory in a special election. (Brown was voted out in 2012.) Most recently, 2020 Republican nominee Kevin O’Connor received barely one-third of the votes cast against Senator Ed Markey. And Warren is a nationally known figure and strong fund-raiser who trounced her last opponent by 24 percentage points.
“An A-list candidate that is smart and has money looks at the numbers of a race like this and says ‘no way,’ ” Gray said. “If they’re interested in the US Senate, they will wait for a different election year.”
Carnevale and other top Republicans said they have had informal conversations with potential contenders, but declined to share any names. Carnevale acknowledged that “our bench is pretty thin.”
One name that has come up among Republican insiders is Peter de Silva, a Cape Cod businessman and author. He has not declared his intentions publicly and did not return a request for comment.
With a Senate victory looking like an unlikely goal, Carnevale said her focus is on the basics: getting out of debt, ensuring candidates have access to voter lists, and meeting with local Republican committees across the state, work that has begun to consume her evenings and weekends.
“This cycle is really going to be about rebuilding, and looking for opportunities to build that team in place to get candidates elected at the local level,” Carnevale said.
Carnevale has an early opportunity to prove her mettle: a special election to replace Democratic state Senator Anne Gobi of Spencer, who will vacate her seat to take a post in the Healey administration. Republicans see the competitive seat west of Worcester as a potential pickup opportunity, particularly in an unpredictable special election.
Carnevale also said she expects the party to pursue policy change through at least one ballot question, an avenue through which Republicans have had more success in recent years. Last year, for example, a Republican-backed effort to block a law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses failed, but captured 46 percent of the vote, while the party’s nominee for governor received less than 35 percent.
And Carnevale has other long-term goals, too. Eventually, she’d like to move the party headquarters from Woburn to downtown Boston, bringing it closer to the seat of state power. But as with the rest of her rebuilding efforts, Carnevale said, “it’s going to take some time.”