What’s behind the split within the Mass. GOP

A testy conversation with members of the 2 factions

THERE IS A STRUGGLE going on for the soul of the Massachusetts Republican Party between Trump loyalists who control the party apparatus and a more moderate brand of Republicanism espoused by Gov. Charlie Baker.

The state party is headed by Jim Lyons, a social and economic conservative who said in a recent email to state Republicans that President Trump’s economy is working for Massachusetts residents. “We learned on Election Day that even here in ‘blue’ Massachusetts, voters in our targeted areas are picking common sense over creeping socialism,” he said.

But the party is also headed by its top office-holder, Baker, who is no fan of Trump and practices a brand of politics that blends social liberalism, fiscal restraint, and a willingness to work cooperatively with the Democrats who dominate Beacon Hill. A relatively new super PAC affiliated with Baker spent money on behalf of Republicans and Democrats in the November municipal elections.

While Lyons and Baker refrain from attacking each other publicly, it’s clear they represent competing factions within the party. On the CommonWealth Codcast, two Republicans from those factions engaged in a sometimes testy debate about the struggle over the party’s direction.

Todd Taylor, a Republican state committeeman who won election to the Chelsea City Council last month with no financial help from the super PAC affiliated with Baker, said the state GOP for about 30 years has been focused exclusively on winning the governor’s office. It’s now shifting gears, he said, attempting to build grassroots support to grow conservatism in Massachusetts from the ground up.

“Conservatives have basically had no place in the party for a long, long time,” Taylor said. “I think conservatives deserve a chance to see what we can do, and I think we’re doing it.”

Ed Lyons, a Republican activist who is no relation to the party chairman, penned an op-ed recently in which he said the super PAC affiliated with Baker is the governor’s bid to form a third party of sorts. “My point was that Baker has all this power and money and network around him,” Lyons said. “How does that create a moderate Republican brand that people will actually vote for to create change that will help the state rather than the Mass. GOP, which is very much focused on national politics and Donald Trump and has turned off most people?”

Lyons says the Massachusetts Republican Party, without Baker, is equivalent to the Rhode Island Republican Party, which hasn’t elected anybody to a statewide or federal office in many, many years. “It fights over a very small number of seats. It gets no money or attention. It’s more or less dead in terms of affecting Rhode Island state politics,” he said.

Taylor said the party’s plight in Massachusetts is a reflection of its past preoccupation with the governor’s office. “For all the time Baker has been in power and had complete control, what did he achieve other than getting himself elected?” Taylor asked. “If we want to do something other than elect Republican governors to make deals with Democrat Legislatures, we better start doing something different.”

Lyons said the handful of victories by Republicans in the recent municipal elections are all well and good, but not a sign of a Republican resurgence at the grassroots level. “That has nothing to do with our viability as a statewide organization,” he said. “The problem is if you have a state party that’s all about Trump and the vices of the president rather than the virtues of Charlie Baker, those tiny number of people who won municipal office have nowhere to go.”

Taylor says he wants a big tent party welcoming all types of Republicans. “Every time I’ve had a chance to vote for Charlie Baker, I voted for Charlie Baker, and that includes at the convention,” he said. “The problem is not really with conservatives not wanting to embrace Charlie Baker. That is true with some conservatives; they feel Charlie hasn’t been Republican enough. But I think the vast majority gave Charlie Baker a chance, wanted to be a big tent party, and it was Charlie’s people that didn’t want to take our outstretched hand. We get blamed for an awful lot, but we haven’t had much power to do anything except for the last 10 months.”

Taylor described Baker’s brand of Republicanism as “training wheels” for many potential Republican voters in Massachusetts. “We need Charlie Baker Republicans in the party,” he said. “The problem is that a lot of Charlie Baker Republicans like Ed don’t want us in the party.”

Lyons said he doesn’t want to exclude conservatives from the party, but he said it matters who from the party is welcoming voters into the tent. He said Lyons, the state party chairman, talks about Trump and national politics and never broaches issues such as housing, transportation, the environment, or health care – issues that matter to people in Massachusetts. He predicts a blue wave is coming in 2020 as independents and Democrats turn against all things Trump.

“We are simply on the wrong path,” Lyons said. “On this trajectory, nobody will care what the Mass. GOP believes in four years.”.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Taylor said conservatives can succeed in Massachusetts if they make their case directly to voters. “Conservatives have, I think, not engaged in the public discourse in productive ways in the past. And we’ve kind of vacated the conversation a bit,” Taylor said. “We do need to engage more in the public discourse and challenge some of these ideas.”

Lyons responded to that by just laughing.