Candidates line up to take on Jim Lyons

MassGOP leadership race highlights party dysfunction

A SLEW OF candidates are lining up to oust Massachusetts Republican Party chair Jim Lyons, in a sign of deep unease with the turmoil that has been roiling the state party for years.

Some view the January 31 election for chair as a final opportunity to revive the troubled organization, even as others question whether it is too late.

Janet Leombruno, a Republican State Committeewoman from Framingham and close ally of former Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, expressed surprise when a reporter called her to ask about the chairmanship race. “I’m surprised anybody cares anymore,” Leombruno said.

Lyons, a former state representative, was first elected party chair in January 2019 and won a second term in 2021. He is a fiscal and social conservative who has not shied away from being vocal on social issues that have often split Massachusetts Republicans, like opposing Democratic attempts to expand abortion rights and transgender rights.

Although Baker was an immensely popular moderate Republican governor, particularly among Democrats and independents, Lyons often criticized him for being a RINO, Republican in Name Only. Lyons declined to fully support Baker-backed auditor candidate Anthony Amore, who was widely viewed as the Republicans’ best chance to win a statewide office in 2022. Amore lost. The party has also struggled with internal strife. There have been lawsuits between party officials over control of the party’s finances. The Boston Globe recently reported that the party owes tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, and the party treasurer accused Lyons of illegally coordinating with an independent political action committee.

In the November 2022 elections, Republican candidates were trounced, losing every statewide race and some legislative seats. Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl lost in a landslide to Democrat Maura Healey.

Under normal circumstances, a crowded field might benefit a well-known incumbent. In 2021, Lyons narrowly defeated Norfolk State Rep. Shawn Dooley by three votes in a two-way race, 39 to 36. But there is some indication that Lyons will lose some of the supporters he had two years ago.

Robert Aufiero of Melrose is a conservative-leaning Republican State Committee member who is still deciding whom to back. “I have supported Jim Lyons the first two times, but it’s a broader field, with a lot of changing dynamics,” he said.

While Aufiero is ideologically aligned with Lyons, he worries about the party mismanagement under Lyons. “I think that we definitely need to be able to rebuild our credibility with the broader electorate in the state,” Aufiero said. “And I think that we need to within the party listen equally to both moderates and conservatives so that we can present a professional image to the people in Massachusetts.”

Although Lyons has not made a public statement regarding his future plans, and his spokesperson Evan Lips did not respond to a request for comment, he appears to be seeking another two-year term as chair. Seven candidates have announced plans to challenge Lyons, including Jon Fetherston, Amy Carnevale, Chris Lyon, Elizabeth Childs, Jay Fleitman, Ron Vining, and Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, although not all of them are running active campaigns, and Sossa-Paquette appears to have dropped out. Several insiders said the candidates with the most support are likely to be Lyons, Carnevale, and Fleitman.

But others are still trying to gin up support. Lyon, a long-time campaign strategist specializing in opposition research, recently tried to convince the Carlisle Republican Town Committee that it was not a two-person race. “If defeating Jim Lyons is your highest priority, you’re probably supporting Amy Carnevale for state GOP chair,” Lyon said, according to his prepared remarks. “If defeating Charlie Baker and running his inner-circle out of the party is your highest priority, you’re probably supporting Jim Lyons for chairman. But, if you really want to defeat Democrats and make electing more Republicans our unambiguous mission, I am your guy.”

The election will be held the evening of January 31 at the Apex Center in Marlborough. Party rules require a majority vote by the members of the Republican State Committee. There are 80 State Committee seats, though only 74 are currently filled. If no one gets a majority on the first round of balloting, the candidate with the fewest votes drops out, and a revote is taken, until someone wins a majority. Campaigning typically involves calling state committee members and asking for their support.

Carnevale, a Republican State committee member from Marblehead who has worked on Capitol Hill and is a federal lobbyist, says she has worked in politics most of her life and wants to use that experience to help the Massachusetts party. “I want to grow the party, communicate more effectively, and help raise money to support candidates across the board regardless of where they may fall on the political spectrum, whether more conservative more liberal,” Carnevale said.

Fleitman, a Northampton pulmonologist who founded a health care organization, is vice chair of the Republican State Committee and has organized Republicans in Western Massachusetts. “There’s been a lot of dysfunction on the committee, a lot of conflict and combativeness, which I know has distracted us from our main purpose, which is to elect our candidates,” Fleitman said in an interview last month.

Fleitman said his political activity has long been about getting “folks to row in the same direction,” and that is what he hopes to do as party chair. “There’s a certain skill set required to bring people at least to a point at which they’re willing to work together for a common end. I think that’s the skill set which the party needs,” he said.

Despite the party turmoil, Lyons still has staunch supporters.

Republican State Committeewoman Kathy Lynch of Westford wrote in an email that Lyons “represents the side of the Republican Party that believes in the Republican platform and wants Republicans to win elections.”

Lynch said Lyons has been traveling around the state rallying Republicans to get involved and run for office. Referring to the intraparty lawsuits, Lynch said Lyons is willing “to take corrupt, establishment Republicans to court for illegal activity.” “These Republicans (frequently called RINOs) want Jim out as Chairman so they can get back to business-as-usual and dismiss his legal battles,” she wrote.

Steven Fruzzetti, a Republican State Committeeman from Milton, said there are two camps in the party, defined by attitudes towards the former governor. “There’s the Baker camp and the non-Baker camp,” Fruzzetti said. Fruzzetti said he will support Lyons because when the party was run by a Baker supporter, former chairwoman Kirsten Hughes, “They tried to get the conservatives out of the party.”

Marty Lamb, a Holliston State Committeeman and former congressional candidate, said he has heard the divide described as the Baker camp versus the Trump camp, but he does not think it is so simple. “I know there’s a middle group that are just sick and tired of the infighting and looking for who can actually take the party and move it forward,” Lamb said.

Lamb, who is conservative-leaning, is not publicly supporting any candidate. “I think we’re at a point where people have to start looking at what’s best for the state, for the party, rather than what’s best for them, their friend, their ally,” he said.

There are also committee members who want to vote for anyone but Lyons, many of whom are backing Carnevale.

State Rep. Paul Frost of Auburn said he hopes Carnevale can stop the infighting. Under her, Frost said, “We can stop having a chairman who goes after Republicans more than he goes after Democrats.” Frost said.

“The current chairman had his opportunity for four years, and it keeps getting worse,” Frost said. “We’ve lost so many seats, he’s put forward really the worst candidate possible to try to hold the governorship… He’s an embattled chairman who’s not done a good job.”

Dooley, who ran against Lyons for the chairmanship unsuccessfully two years ago, said he think that at that time, many people weren’t paying attention to internal party politics. “An additional two years of abysmal failure and losing the corner office has woken up a lot of people,” Dooley said.

Dooley said Lyons’ focus on social issues has alienated the liberal-leaning Massachusetts electorate, where many Republicans, like Baker, support gay marriage and abortion rights. “Jim commands the segment who their main issues are anti-immigration, anti-abortion, and anti-homosexuality… which are not winning bases to run a political party in Massachusetts,” Dooley said. “Maybe Alabama, not Massachusetts.”

Leombruno said she would support “anybody but Jim.” She added: “I honestly think this race really isn’t about who’s best, unfortunately it’s who can win.”

Like some other committee members, Leombruno partly blamed Lyons for Healey’s election, citing Lyons’ disdain for Baker. “The chair said all along he’d rather have a Democrat like Maura Healey than a Republican that’s a fake Republican like Charlie Baker, so we knew what we were going to get,” Leombruno said.

Leombruno said she hopes a new chair can make the party relevant again, but she thinks it will take time. “We’re really the laughingstock,” she said. “It’s a nightmare, we’ve become irrelevant. What I call it is a dumpster fire.”

Ed Lyons, a longtime Republican activist and a Baker supporter, said he worries that it is too late and the party has already “become extinct.” He said there is no model for what success looks like, since Republicans have no recent successes. There is little money left in the party and no real statewide network of activists. He worries that the party has become too influenced by national media rather than statewide issues. Lyons said anti-Trump Republicans like himself have stopped being active in the state party.

“Many candidates are simply throwing their hat in the ring thinking there’s no obvious person to choose to lead the MassGOP, so why not?” Lyons said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Susan Smiley of Lancaster, who has not decided whom to vote for, said she does not know why so many people want to lead the party, citing “the ugliness on both sides.” She adds: “I sure as heck wouldn’t want to get into that beehive. Quite honestly with everything that’s gone on, I’m very embarrassed to be part of the organization.”