AFTER MONTHS OF CONFLICT between Gov. Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Republican Party, a powerful new super PAC that backs candidates Baker supports has stepped into public view and gotten involved in elections. In last week’s municipal elections it spent an unbelievable $267,000 on 15 candidates, of which 11 won. Four of the 11 candidates who won did so in close races.
By all appearances, Massachusetts Majority is the engine of a new statewide political party, targeting that sizeable majority of largely unenrolled voters who support Charlie Baker and his politics but are not being served by loud partisans to the left and right. These voters do not want to choose between supporting the positions of Donald Trump or progressive purists. Massachusetts Majority is specifically designed to be the organization they can finally support.
The people behind Massachusetts Majority would surely say it is not a political party and, by itself, they are correct. But it is better to ask what a party is, and whether Baker’s power base, combined with the super PAC, meets the definition.
A political party has the following assets: supporters, data about voters, a network of donors, credibility, a platform of beliefs many people agree with, a power base of elected officials, and senior members who can provide resources.
So any organization that can meet those requirements is acting as a party. For example, Americans for Prosperity, an enormous national conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, has become more powerful in some states than the state Republican parties in them. Of course, no one who views political parties as they were defined in the 20th century would call AFP a party. Alas, it still acts as one.
Massachusetts Majority has a lot of money already (it outraised the MassGOP this year, bringing in almost a million dollars in the past few months). It has talented professionals behind it, and it is aligned with a huge base of power. Its big expenditures in local races certainly look like party-building. What else would cause Massachusetts Majority to spend $24,000 on a Framingham city council race?
This new party is coming into existence largely as a reaction to what’s happening in the state Republican Party. Things were relatively good for Baker and the MassGOP when he won in 2014. The politician and the party worked together. Baker provided a power base and massive fundraising, and the MassGOP supported him, his style, and his policies. There was also an existing grassroots MassGOP organization named MassVictory that raised a lot of money, gathered volunteers, opened field offices, and helped many candidates.
But Baker has struggled to get his party’s base to support his Massachusetts-focused brand of Republicanism. Trump has also found strong support among many Republicans here, which is a major disconnect with an electorate that disapproves of Trump more than almost any other state.
Powered by Trump and a belief that Baker is not conservative enough, the MassGOP’s state committee elected former state representative Jim Lyons as chairman. He has steered the party’s messaging toward Trump and national politics. Lyons recently told all party members in an email that the party’s candidates should be “a chorus of conservative voices supporting the work of President Trump.” But fundraising has been lagging, and MassVictory has shut down. Lyons also has started a noisy, divisive audit of the finances of the previous party administrators, and state committee members who support Lyons are not being nice about it.
The rift between Baker’s donors and supporters and the MassGOP’s new leadership has made Massachusetts Majority necessary. Here’s how it works. Baker and those around him can vet candidates and decide who to support. The super PAC notices, and then it can help. The PAC has voter data, and has already done targeted mailings to help candidates. And there is an implicit platform or philosophy underpinning it all: Charlie Baker’s centrist governing philosophy. That platform, plus Baker’s donor network and his base of power — combined with Massachusetts Majority — add up to a political party, no matter how much people may claim it is absolutely, positively no such thing.
Yes, most of the super PAC’s visible activity right now is campaign mailings. But mailings are a huge part of what the MassGOP does for candidates. More is certainly happening behind the scenes with donors and supporters.
The Democrats should be concerned as well, since Massachusetts Majority has also been supporting Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party does not have a lock on a majority of Massachusetts voters, and Massachusetts Majority may help non-progressive Democrats win without the backing of their party.
But how well could a de facto moderate third party work here? Didn’t Evan Falchuk and the United Independent Party already try a fiscally conservative and socially moderate party? Yes. But they failed to get traction because they created a political party without a base of power to make it compelling to donors, volunteers, and the media.
Can Charlie Baker be the most popular governor in America, govern as a Republican, and also be the detached head of a third party here that supports Republican and Democratic candidates? It’s remarkably non-binary of him, and I think people in this state will be OK with that. After all, it is strict binary choices, and the accompanying polarization, that is destroying American politics. Here in Massachusetts, more than half want non-binary choices.
We cannot yet tell where this experiment will go. Will the MassGOP, losing resources to Massachusetts Majority, give up on Trump and his politics, finally adopt majority positions on gateway issues, and move back toward Baker? If so, Massachusetts Majority may just be a useful super PAC. But if the state Republican Party continues to reject Baker’s style of politics and the prevailing view here among the electorate, then perhaps it will lose relevance, and this effort might grow into a new centrist party aimed at more than 50 percent of voters, instead of one aimed at less than 30 percent.
It has been said that Massachusetts politics hasn’t innovated in a while. But in a time of terrible polarization and nationalization of our politics, we may be witnessing the birth of something new that the rest of America will notice.
Ed Lyons is a Massachusetts Republican activist and political writer.