MassGOP Chairman Must Be A Realist

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Our Massachusetts Republican Party will have an election for party chairman on Wednesday, January 25. The chairman controls the state party office on Merrimac Street in Boston, where a small staff works to grow the party and win elections.

Kirsten Hughes, our current chairman, is up for re-election against State Committee member Steve Aylward. She is a strong supporter of Governor Charlie Baker, who has brought money, dignity, and hope to a party that desperately needs it. Under Baker and Hughes, the party brand makes sense to most people in our state. The MassGOP is a moderate, ideologically flexible party that reaches out to all kinds of people to win elections. Considering we are only about 10 percent of the voters, it’s the only strategy that makes sense.

But for a small group of very conservative Republicans, all of this is wrong. We are supposed to be a very conservative state party, similar to the national GOP. These people have never liked the politics of Charlie Baker, and they are backing Aylward for MassGOP chairman in order to change things.

Aylward insists, despite all the evidence, that we can elect a lot more Republicans than we have now, if he were in charge. But he shows no understanding of how Republicans actually win elections. For example, every pollster and experienced campaign manager will tell you that almost all Republican candidates require a significant number of Democrat votes to win. Yet, Aylward’s campaign platform says: “At every turn, treat the Democrats not as friends, but as our political enemy, sworn to destroy us.” So, I guess the message to the tens of thousands of Democrats who put Baker over the top is: “You’re the enemy.” Can you imagine the mind that put that sentence into a public strategy document?

We have a ton of useful data about Massachusetts politics (polls, surveys, and election results) that must inform our plans. Yes, a single poll can be wrong, and a group of polls can be off for one cycle, but the data we have for what Massachusetts voters want out of government is the result of hundreds of polls and elections over many years. Fortunately, the executive director of the MassGOP is very good with data. Brian Wynne is quite aware of the state’s historical election data in PD43 (the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s historical election database), the excellent quantitative analysis work of Brent Benson, and the many high-quality polls and surveys done by Steve Koczela of MassINC Polling. Wynne also has other sources of public and private data about voters.

Using data, you can actually map out the entire state by ideology. Benson has done this exercise, and so have I. (See one example map below that I did a couple of years ago. The lightest areas show districts that are slightly Republican, but represented by Democrats.)


You find that there are about a dozen House seats where a majority would be open to voting Republican. But the Democrat incumbents there know their districts, and won’t go too far left. Also, incumbency — which Benson calculates is worth a whopping 12 points (!)— far outweighs the partisan slant to these districts. Worse, Speaker Bob DeLeo is also keenly aware which districts are more centrist, and protects the Democrats who represent them. This makes beating those incumbents much harder than the partisan data would indicate.

As for issues to run on, the only big issue where people in this state are more in line with Republicans than Democrats is taxes. But voters won’t expel sitting Democrats over taxes when the Republican challenger disagrees with them on everything else, and taxes aren’t often a hot issue.

Aylward and his ally, ex-Republican National Committee member Chanel Prunier, never talk about any of this data, for the same reason Creationists don’t talk about geology or the fossil record:  it invalidates their views.

But the hard truth is, even for Merrimac Street, that there is no realistic plan to quickly and significantly increase the number of Republicans in the state legislature, or the number of registered Republicans statewide. Throwing money at the “grassroots” won’t change things, either. Despite what Aylward promises, the legally-established Republican Town Committee system does not work (as I have written about at length) as too many of them operate where a Republican can’t win any local office. The town committee members just sit around, elect nobody in their town, talk politics, and radicalize themselves.

As for registration numbers, in the time of Trump, Merrimac Street probably can’t even get enough new Republicans to make up for those we are losing because of what is going on in Washington. Trump has an abysmal 28% approval rating in this state as of last week. He is political poison here, and couldn’t win any elected office. We don’t even have a lot of new Trump voters helping the MassGOP. According to the great work of Boston Globe data analyst Evan Horowitz, we know Trump voters are the same as Baker voters.

Another familiar gripe, which Prunier just wrote about in New Boston Post, is that the MassGOP only supports candidates in the biggest races. Once again, data disproves this assertion. In the 2016 election cycle, where there was no big state election, the MassGOP spent nearly $500,000 on lots of state legislative races, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which tracks all money in state politics. That report also shows there were some very conservative candidates who got money.

And let’s be honest: money is crucial, but it doesn’t magically create viable candidates across the state. It also doesn’t turn unelectable candidates into winning candidates. You could have given Aylward himself a million dollars in 2012, and it wouldn’t have made any difference in his landslide 76-23 loss to Will Brownsberger for the state Senate. His ideology just isn’t acceptable to his district.

The legislative districts that will vote for conservative Republicans have largely already been won. With Democrat incumbents having a built-in 12-point advantage, there’s no way to suddenly defeat a lot of them. Voting is a habit, and it’s very hard to change people’s habits. Charlie Baker is slowly making inroads into the cities and wealthy suburbs that have delivered so many Democratic victories. But that progress is slow.

Despite frustrations with these limitations, the MassGOP must keep raising money, supporting our existing office-holders, improving our party infrastructure, building our state-specific brand, and looking for opportunities to win, especially where there are open seats. To do that, we need to support Kirsten Hughes and her team. The false promises of those who refuse to accept the reality of Massachusetts politics are a distraction from the long and difficult road ahead.


Ed Lyons is a Republican activist and writer. His opinions are his own, and he does not speak for state committee chairman Kirsten Hughes, Governor Charlie Baker, or any other MassGOP official.