The Massachusetts Republican Party hasn’t exactly been a force to be reckoned with in recent years. Democrats have controlled both houses of the state legislature since 1959 (1), usually with a veto-proof supermajority, and Republicans have had difficulty winning statewide elections, with the exception of the occasional moderate governor. In spite of this electoral weakness, the Mass GOP has maintained several levels of power in state governance, from acting as a watchdog against the Democratic majority, to helping decide races for Speaker of the House and Senate President in favor of moderate Democrats in opposition to more progressive ones, as well as leveraging legislative leadership’s desire for unanimity to pursue their own legislative agenda and to moderate otherwise sweeping reform packages. In addition, the Mass GOP has offered significant campaign infrastructure, enabling popular, moderate Republican gubernatorial aspirants to find surprising success in this most liberal state in the nation, with Republicans occupying the governor’s mansion for 22 of the last 30 years.
However, it seems that in the age of Trump, the divide between the moderate establishment of the state party, the conservative grassroots activists, and the Republican National Committee has become untenable, driving the party to the far right, and puts it in danger of sliding into total irrelevance. Despite the rise of the New Right and the nationwide conservative movement, New England Republican politics had remained seemingly insular from these national trends, with its own blend of moderate, socially liberal, and economically conservative politics playing well to large constituencies in a region that has long voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in national elections, despite above-average wealth (10).
This insular nature was seemingly broken by the rise of Trump to the top of the Republican Party and its sharp turn to the right under him, as ultra-conservative enthusiasm for the president in the grassroots of the party overwhelmed the establishment’s hold on their power. This is best represented in Massachusetts, in the rise of former state Representative Jim Lyons to the office of state party chairman on Jan. 17, 2019 (2).
During his time as a state legislator, Lyons was known for his extreme right-wing positions and inflammatory proposals, such as his proposals to defund Planned Parenthood in the state and ban immigrants without proper documentation from their country of origin from receiving public benefits (3), as well as his failed effort to recall Salem Superior Court Justice Timothy Feeley, for his sentencing of a drug dealer, who also happened to be an immigrant, to probation instead of jail time, with the accusation that this decision was made to help the man avoid deportation (4). In November of 2018, Lyons was one of the many thousands of Republicans unseated by the Democratic “blue wave,” which extended the Democratic majority on Beacon Hill and created a large Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in Congress (5).
After this failure, Lyons decided to run for chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party in opposition to state party secretary Brent Andersen, a member of the moderate establishment and widely seen as an ally to Governor Charlie Baker. Lyons, who had been effusive in his praise for President Trump since the failure of Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, for whom he had served as campaign chairman for Massachusetts, ran as the candidate of the conservative wing of the party, and won a surprise victory by a margin of 47-30 votes among the Republican State Committee (2).
Lyons began his chairmanship by pledging a desire for party unity and emphasizing his support for Gov. Baker, but has since engaged in a campaign to wrest control of the state party infrastructure from him, most recently in a dispute over control of the party’s fundraising infrastructure (6).
Lyons, in his crusade to purge the Massachusetts Republican Party of heretical moderatism, threatens to destroy its chances of ever finding success in the state again. In moving the state party closer to the hardline conservative politics of the RNC, he moves it away from the mostly liberal politics of the actual residents of the state (7). Lyons opposition to abortion, one of the most heated issues in any election, stands in stark contrast to Massachusetts status as the most pro-choice state in the union, with 74 percent of Commonwealth respondents in a Pew poll supporting legal abortion in “all or most cases" (8). His legislative record also reveals his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, in direct opposition to a state that voted overwhelmingly in favor of protecting transgender rights in referendum, the first state to do so (9). His opposition to immigration stands in stark contrast to the economic needs of the state as well, as our economy suffers from a dangerously low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, in comparison to the national rate of 3.5 percent, which is considered by many economists to constitute full employment (11).
If Chairman Lyons succeeds, he threatens to drive the Massachusetts Republican Party into total irrelevancy by making clear his only constituents are the most conservative people in the state and the RNC in Washington. This vision is out of touch with citizens of our Commonwealth, and his chairmanship will only cement Democratic control of the legislature, possibly securing the opportunity for widespread progressive reform.