Last week the Massachusetts Republican State Committee’s members — 77 of the 80 — elected former State Representative Jim Lyons its new party chairman. The vote was Lyons 47, Brent Andersen, 30. (Andersen had been the party treasurer and was expected to win easily.)
It was an outcome shocking to many, and for very good reason. Jim is a gentleman, a genuine nice guy, yet his politics are something else again. Because of them, Lyons lost his House seat (North Andover and parts of Tewksbury and Andover) by ten points to a Democratic newcomer, Tram T. Nguyen, an attorney. He was the only Republican member of the House to be defeated — and in a District that Governor Baker won by more than two to one. Yet the State Committee saw fit to elect him its leader.
Lyons was the lead signature on the ballot initiative that sought to strip away the civil rights that transgender people in our state were assured by the legislature, a bill signed into law by Governor Baker in 2016. The Lyons repeal failed by 68 to 32 statewide and by a similar margin in his District. Lyons was also the most vocal legislative opponent of women’s rights to pregnancy choice and had been just as vocal in opposition to marriage equality. All three positions put Lyons at odds with the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters. Yet the Massachusetts Republican State Committee saw fit to elect him as its chairman.
What follows is my assessment of why this happened.
First : the Republican State Committee, like partisan committees of all sorts, acts for its own reasons, not for the public. That Lyons was defeated, the Committee took not as fundamental rejection of his views but as a wake up call to work harder and be more organized. Lyons has promised to boost the activist strength of the party’s town and city committees: indeed, that was his speech message at the election meeting, and it accurately reflects what activist Republicans think is the party’s problem : not that its message is wrong but that its people aren’t organized enough. That 68 percent of our voters reject Lyons’s opposition to transgender people having full civil rights doesn’t bother a State Committee that believes the outcome would have been different if its ten percent of voters — for that is all there is of registered Republicans in Massachusetts today — had worked harder.
Lyons spoke of “unifying” the party. To this I call BS. What he wants to unify are the anti’s — those who oppose marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, and transgender civil rights, the full palette of social react.ion. These folks ARE NOT the entire Republican party of our state, only a part of them (though a large part). In the recent election, where one Snively won 34 percent of the primary vote against Governor Baker, probably a majority of the ‘anti’s” voted for that Snively. Jim Lyons supported Baker, actively, and maybe crucially; and that support was duly noted. That’s who Lyons wants to unify : the “anti’s” who voted against Baker and those who voted for him. As for Republicans who support the civil rights — including nine Republican members of the House — that the “anti’s” oppose, the hell with them, I guess.
Lyons’s other commitment spoken at the meeting was to have the party confront what he called the “corruption” on Beacon Hill. Here he’s on more realistic ground. The legislature is indeed tightly controlled by Democratic party insiders who don’t always take care to avoid tweaking their influence. These insiders face their own intra-party opposition, an intense dislike by “progressives,” of that tight control. The Democratic opposition wants the members, not the Speaker, to control the House democratic caucus, and it wants a legislative agenda that the Democratic regulars do not necessarily like. In particular, the Democratic insurgents want the House to confront Governor Baker at every turn, not co-operate with him as it does now. Thus Lyons’s confrontation gambit mirrors that of the Democratic left albeit in the opposite direction.
Clearly this confrontation promise by Lyons swayed enough votes away from Brent Andersen to give Jim the win. Just as most State Committee members think that the party’s message is just fine on basic rights issues, so it evidently feels that legislative confrontation, in place of co-operation, is just fine.
I heartily disagree.
Lyons and his supporters clearly hope to create in Massachusetts what exists nationally,. two parties bending to their extremes, with the ultimate winner to be decided on an extremist battlefield in which either side has a fair chance.
The Lyons people want Democratic regulars primaried by progressives, and defeated in the primary, because they believe that most Massachusetts voters will choose a Republican rather than a Democratic progressive, and that the more progressives who defeat Democratic regulars, the more Republicans will get elected to the legislature. I think they’re dead wrong. Heck, Lyons himself was defeated by a progressive.
The case of Mr. Trump sums up this theory. Trump was disfavored, in November exit polls, by 66 percent of Massachusetts voters, favored by only 31 percent. Those numbers may well be worse now because of the Trump shut-down. Confrontation between extremists has actually weakened the Republican vote in our state. Until Trump, Republican presidential and Senatorial candidates could count on 38 percent of the vote. In 2018 that number retreated to 36 percent (Geoff Diehl versus Elizabeth Warren) Who, other than a Jim Lyons voter, doubts that the Massachusetts result in 2020 will be even worse ?
Lastly, the way of absolute confrontation, in search of absolute victory, risks absolute defeat. Look at what happened this week in New York State, where after decades of bi-partisan centrism, a Democratic election sweep in November has enacted every sort of progressive wish list law. That won’t happen here, because ( 1 ) Jim Lyons leads far too small a number of voters to actually shift much balance ( 2 ) the progressives here aren’t that large a number either and ( 3 ) legislative control by Democratic regulars is not in any way threatened. The election of Lyons is therefore of far less import than his supporters imagine.
It’s also, of course, an insult to all Massachusetts supporters of equal civil rights for everybody and a rebuke to Governor Baker, too, for his co-operation on the legislature’s agenda; but it’s an insult with very little power to threaten either Baker or the legislature’s agenda.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere