ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The new chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, chosen just a week ago, is going to wrench the organization away from its responsible, serious path set by Governor Charlie Baker, and plunge it into a Trumpean ideological abyss.
That’s what just about everybody says, except the man himself.
“I’m going to do my job, which is to elect more Republicans by sticking to broad principles,” says Jim Lyons. “Winning is about building our ranks. I will leave the politics to the individual candidates.”
Lyons, speaking to me in his first media interview since last Thursday’s party election, seemed about as far from his anti-establishment, wild man image as possible. He was seated on the deck of a Southwest resort hotel, dressed in a navy blue suit, taking time in between meetings and lavish meals with the elites of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
Lyons only learned last Friday, after winning the state committee vote, that he had to high-tail it to Albuquerque for the annual Winter Meeting. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for the 65-year-old small businessman. He lost his election for a fifth term as state representative in November, and became a late entrant for the open chair position in mid-December. Now, he’s being introduced around to national Republican leaders by Ron Kaufman, Massachusetts’s long-time Republican National Committeeman.
Lyons, a 65-year-old small businessman from Andover, became known in his four two-year terms in the state house as the voice of the loudmouth conservative resistance. His positions on abortion rights, transgender rights, and other hot-button issues got him targeted by Democrats last year; they spent some $300,000 helping Tram Nguyen defeat a man who they—and to be honest, quite a few establishment Republicans—saw as an embarrassment.
So, when a solid majority of Republican State Committee members voted last week to make him party chairman, stunned reactions painted it as a hostile takeover by a self-destructive, ultra-conservative, anti-establishment faction who have in recent years battled the centrist—and successful—Charlie Baker wing of the Massachusetts GOP.
“A changing of the guard” for the state party, the Boston Herald called it. The Boston Globe called it “a rebuke to Charlie Baker.” The state Democratic Party called on Baker to “publicly and swiftly denounce Lyons’ vision for an intolerant, discriminatory party.”
He gets it. “People are looking at it, and it is difficult for them to see how somebody who’s been known as a firebrand can be a party chair,” Lyons says.
But he sees his new role as a fundamentally different one than he previously held. “Running as a state representative, I wanted to have an impact and discuss the issues that the taxpayers and the general public is interested in,” Lyons says. “What I learned on Beacon Hill is that to have that impact, we need to elect more Republicans.”
Kaufman, while conceding that Lyons’ victory over state party treasurer Brent Andersen was a surprise, doesn’t seem worried. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with Jim here [at the Winter Meeting],” he says. “He understands the value of the party. He was a recipient of that largesse, so he understands it.”
Lyons also has nothing but praise for previous party chairs, especially outgoing Kristen Hughes of Quincy, a Baker loyalist who has run the party since 2013. Far from seeing recent years as opportunities squandered by establishment, RINO (Republican In Name Only) moderates, Lyons describes a party whose infrastructure has greatly improved since he was first elected in 2010.
In fact, Lyons sees his role as bridging the divide within the state party—which sounds, as he describes it, like using his conservative credentials to bring the rebellious right into the big-tent vision for growing the party.
“There is a divide in the [Massachusetts] Republican Party—if you don’t acknowledge that, you’re just not being honest,” Lyons says. “The conservatives feel like they’re left out of the discussion. I don’t view it that way. We need to talk about the principles that unite Republicans… individual freedom, responsibility, less government, less regulation.”
His first initiative as chairman, announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is far more Baker-esque than Lyons-like: a push to “re-engage urban communities,” with particular focus on “people of color, millennials, and existing Republicans who may feel abandoned.” Rachel Kemp, a black Boston Republican, will lead the effort.
That’s probably not the new focus hard-core conservatives had in mind with Lyons taking over the party.
It remains to be seen what happens when Lyons starts getting pressure from that side of the divide. “There are forces that will push him in some directions, and that will make things harder,” Kaufman says.
Lyons, though certainly not disavowing his own strong beliefs on the issues, insists that he won’t vacillate on his new mission. Besides, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy himself by criticizing Bay State Democrats, including Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.
RNC’s Calm After The Storm
The news coming out of the RNC Winter Meeting is a resolution of “undivided” support for President Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020—essentially a declaration that any Republican who challenges Trump in the primaries will get no aid and comfort from the official party structure.
That’s been taken by some as further evidence that the Republican Party, under Trump and his chosen RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, has devolved into a frothing, unhinged cult, protecting their leader even after the pummeling of the mid-term elections.
In Albuquerque, that picture appeared as inaccurate as the image of Lyons turning the MassGOP into a social-conservative madhouse.
Conversations at the Winter Meeting were heavily focused on the nuts-and-bolts of voter identification, get-out-the-vote operations, and messaging, not the latest Trump tweets and FOX News daily outrage. State party chairs and national committee members are, unsurprisingly, sticking by their party leader, but if the RNC has been taken over by rabid MAGA zealots they look and speak an awful lot like the political professionals that were there long before Trump.
Jack Wilson, the new Virginia Republican Party chairman, walked me through some of the ideas and best practices he’s hoping to adopt after a string of Democratic successes in what had been considered a highly competitive “purple” state. His plans include renewed efforts at registering voters in Republican-heavy parts of the state, to counter impressive Democratic efforts; Wilson says that he learned at the Winter Meeting of RNC plans to support such drives nationally.
Other plans were also being unveiled at the Winter Meeting, including efforts to streamline online campaign contributions to GOP candidates, and others still under wraps until a Friday presentation.
There seemed to be considerable agreement among those I spoke with that the GOP, and in particular the RNC, had performed the fundamentals well in the 2018 mid-term election cycle, but could not hold back the tidal wave for change.
“The operation was a complete success, but the patient died,” Kaufman quipped.
Kaufman says there has been very little of the finger-pointing and in-fighting that usually follows a bad election cycle for a party, and that does seem to be the case. He also claims that, unlike this stage of some other Presidential re-election cycles, there has thus far been no tension among the different power centers of the White House, the re-election campaign, and the RNC.
To be sure, a little probing reveals that, underneath the studious election-cycle preparations, lie beliefs one would expect among Trump supporters.
So, as with Lyons, go ahead and call them ideologically crazy. But don’t mistake that for being politically stupid.