In a sign of the widening rift between Governor Charlie Baker and the state GOP, party officials have quietly dismantled the lucrative — and controversial — fund-raising operation that helped pump millions toward the second-term Republican’s two campaign victories.
The Massachusetts Victory Committee, a joint effort the MassGOP launched with the Republican National Committee in 2013, has collapsed in recent months, taking in next to no cash after raising $11 million over the previous five years.
Jim Lyons, a conservative former lawmaker elected as party chairman in January, has also scuttled the state GOP’s longtime fund-raisers, and he has questioned spending at both MassVictory and the party under Baker allies.
The moves, some in and around the party fear, could sap the long cash-strapped GOP of badly needed resources at a time when the fractures between Lyons, a President Trump supporter, and the more moderate Baker, a Trump critic, have never appeared wider.
“It’s clear that a successful fund-raising operation is not a priority of current MassGOP leadership,” John Cook, the finance chairman of MassVictory since 2015, wrote Monday in a scathing e-mail to state’s 80 GOP committee members. The MassVictory committee “has been closed down” — suggesting it was Lyons’ decision — and party fund-raising has badly lagged since, Cook added.
“Our GOP candidates up and down the ballot in 2020 are unlikely to receive any direct financial support from the party, and the vital programs the MassGOP pioneered over the past five years are at risk of being mothballed,” he said.
Lyons declined to respond to Cook’s e-mail, saying he’d wait to comment until after he met with an internal committee investigating the party’s spending. Lyons caught the attention of committee members when he circulated on Friday night a five-page memo scrutinizing hundreds of thousands in payments the party and MassVictory had made over multiple years to Cook and others.
But, in an earlier interview, Lyons downplayed the impact of losing MassVictory’s fund-raising stream, saying he feels “comfortable” the party is raising enough to help candidates in 2020 and that it’s exploring other opportunities to partner with the national committee.
“There’s a transition taking place,” Lyons said. “Based on our close relationship with the RNC, we believe in the long term, it will be beneficial to the party.”
According to the memo from Lyons’s team, he was told by Cook that the agreement between the MassGOP and Republican National Committee had “expired” before his election and needed his approval to be renewed.
In the months following Lyons’ election, the committee grounded to a halt, reporting just a single, $1,000 donation through the end of July. In 2018 alone, the committee had funneled nearly $1.4 million into the party’s federal account.
Under the complicated agreement, portions of MassVictory’s fund-raising went to both the MassGOP and the RNC. But the national committee would also routinely transfer lump-sum payments to the state party, which in 2018 alone mounted to $1.6 million.
The arrangement allowed individual donors to give up to $45,500 to MassVictory, far above the $5,000 cap for state-regulated political donations to the parties or the $1,000 annual limit for donations to Baker’s campaign committee.
MassVictory also had survived intense scrutiny. State campaign finance regulators determined in 2016 that the state party’s use of money raised under federal rules to help Baker slipped through a loophole in Massachusetts campaign finance law. And repeated attempts by Democrats who control the Legislature to rein in the fund-raising structure never gained traction.
Now sapped of MassVictory’s fund-raising stream, the state party’s federal account has raised roughly $470,000 through the end of July, with more than half of that — more than $270,000 — coming directly from its own state-level account.
RNC officials did not return repeated calls and e-mails about the fund-raising agreement. Jim Conroy, a senior adviser to Baker, declined to comment.
The developments, however, have left others openly questioning the direction of the party. Cook, who led fund-raising for the MassGOP before joining MassVictory, said the party is on pace for its “worst year of fund-raising since 2009” and has done little to replace the advantage that committee gave the party.
“The Chair didn’t coordinate fundraising with the Baker and Polito teams. And the Chair chose not to preserve the fundraising structure previously in place,” Cook wrote in his e-mail to committee members. “The professional finance staff that raised $15 million [over the last four years] is no longer employed by the MassGOP.”
Brent J. Andersen, the longtime party treasurer who unsuccessfully vied against Lyons for chairman this year, said that after nearly 20 years on the state committee, he will not seek reelection in March. “Lyons and his leadership team have taken actions that will have pernicious effects,” Andersen said in an e-mail to The Boston Globe.
Fissures have been forming for months between the Lyons-led party and Baker, its titular head. Under the former Andover lawmaker, the state GOP has adopted a pro-Trump tone far to the right of Baker’s more moderate brand, and Baker has retained his own staff as he mulls seeking a third term. The governor had used party employees and the MassGOP headquarters for its operations after he first took office in 2015, helping cover overhead costs as Baker raised record-breaking amounts.
Baker’s political team is also now renting a $3,000-a-month office on West Street, providing a physical example of the separation between the governor and the party apparatus.
Then, in August, the divide spilled directly in the public realm when the two sides clashed over lucrative donor databases that temporarily locked both out of the data by software giant Salesforce.com.
The party staff has since regained access to the database, according to a letter its lawyer sent Lyons roughly two weeks after they threatened legal action against the company.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com.