AFTER THE CLOBBERING taken by Massachusetts Republicans in the 2022 election, as many as three candidates could be posing challenges to state Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons. The January election will be a debate over how to rebuild the party, which has been sharply divided between factions loyal to moderate GOP Gov. Charlie Baker and those aligned with the pro-Trump, socially conservative Lyons.
Republican State Committee vice chair Jay Fleitman announced a challenge to Lyons the morning after Election Day. Christopher Lyon, a Republican campaign operative known nationally for his opposition research, announced his candidacy Wednesday. Amy Carnevale, a Republican State committee member from Marblehead, is in the process of gathering commitments of support while considering announcing a run.
“We’re at a time right now where I think we need a change,” Lyon said in an interview. “I don’t know if we’ve hit rock bottom, but 2022 was not the greatest election cycle.”
That is something of an understatement. The party’s nominee for governor, Geoff Diehl, got trounced nearly 2-to-1 by Maura Healey, as Democrats swept every statewide office and retained all nine congressional House seats. Meanwhile, the party’s already anemic numbers on Beacon Hill in the House and Senate, which make it largely irrelevant to the workings of the Legislature, dipped even further, with Republicans now claiming only 26 seats in the 160-member House, with the outcomes of two races still unknown, and three of the 40 Senate seats.
The number of candidates challenging Lyons, a former state representative who has not said whether he will run again and could not be reached Thursday, reflects the dysfunction within the MassGOP.
Lyons refused to actively support Anthony Amore, the Republican auditor candidate who was supported by Baker. Lyons is locked in a lawsuit with party treasurer Patrick Crowley, over control of the party’s bank account. Meetings of the Republican Party have disbanded because members refused to attend over parliamentary disputes with Lyons. Last year, several former Republican chairs called on Lyons to resign after he declined to forcefully condemn anti-gay comments by a State Committee member.
Party leaders have been split about the influence of former president Donald Trump. Baker, a Republican who was elected twice with strong support from Democratic and independent voters, has been openly critical of Trump, while Lyons strongly backed the former president.
The divide frames the conundrum facing anyone looking to lead the party today. Those vying to take the Mass. GOP reins are reluctant to make a clean break with Trump, who is still a favorite of many of those who form the party’s dwindling base of hard-core loyalists, but it’s hard to see how Republicans make major inroads with the huge bloc of independent voters needed to win elections in Massachusetts while still tethered to the former president and his right-wing stands.
In interviews, both Lyon and Carnevale declined to be categorized in either the Baker or Lyons camps.
Lyon said he has worked for Republicans who are moderate and those who are more conservative. He voted for Trump as the Republican nominee for president but said he would remain neutral in the 2024 presidential primary if elected party chair. As state party chair, he said he would focus the party’s message on economic and cost-of-living issues because focusing on cultural and social issues will not win Massachusetts elections. “I come at this as a guy who’s a campaign professional who’s dedicated to winning,” he said.
Carnevale said she considers herself a center-right Republican. She was a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention and supported Lyons when he ran for party chair four years ago because she felt he would be a “good complement” to the more moderate Baker. But Carnevale said she has seen the party “suffer” under Lyons’ leadership, as Lyons focused on national issues and alienated independent voters. Carnevale also said she favors a focus on pocketbook issues that can appeal to more voters than social issues can. “I would really seek to work on the image of our party, because it cannot be successful winning elections if we can’t appeal to independent voters,” Carnevale said. Carnevale also said she would remain neutral in the 2024 presidential primary as party chair.
The first candidate to declare their candidacy was Fleitman, a Northampton resident and Cooley Dickinson Hospital physician specializing in pulmonology and sleep medicine. He ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2010, losing the Republican primary. He was elected to the Republican State Committee in 2020 and chosen as the party’s vice chair in 2021. At the time, Lyons called Fleitman “a tireless advocate for our core Republican principles.”
Politico reported that Fleitman, in an email announcing his run for chairmanship, lamented the party’s losses. He told Politico that the party has been “expending most of our energy fighting each other rather than doing what we need to do to be successful.” Fleitman could not be reached Thursday.
Carnevale, 51, has the longest involvement with the State Committee, which she was first elected to in 2012.
Carnevale grew up in Marblehead, interned at the White House for George H.W. Bush, then spent 10 years working on Capitol Hill, becoming chief of staff to Congressman George Nethercutt of Washington State. After Nethercutt ran unsuccessfully for Senate, she took a job at law firm K&L Gates in Washington, then moved to their Boston office, where she continues to work today in federal government relations.
“The relationships I’ve built over the years working in DC and at a federal level in government relations, I’d hope to bring to bear to support the party in fundraising and message development in Massachusetts,” Carnevale said.
Lyon, 58, is the only one of the three potential candidates who has not served on the Republican State Committee. A Hanson native, he worked on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, then spent his career working for Republican campaigns – Rudy Giuliani’s New York City mayoral campaign, Jim Gilmore’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Phill Gramm’s Texas Senate campaign, and the Republican National Committee. He ran an Albany-based government consulting group where his expertise was in opposition research, uncovering negative information about his clients’ election opponents.
“He is sought-after, reviled and, according to foes and allies alike, good at what he does,” the New York Times said in 2006, chronicling some of his controversial methods, including anonymous smear campaigns.
Lyon has also worked on local races, helping elect Republican state Rep. David DeCoste and Sen. Ryan Fattman.
Lyon was a Trump appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency, where he held a regional chief of staff position.
In an email to State Committee members, Lyon wrote that the dismal election results show that change is needed within the party. “When it’s time for a change, you can do one of two things: promote someone from within the organization to execute a limited course correction or select a new and fresh person from outside of the organization who will make the dramatic changes necessitated by the current situation,” Lyon wrote. He pledged to be a full-time party chair who will focus on fundraising, standing up Republican city and town committees, and working with state committee members to get more state legislators elected.
Lyons said his goal for the state Republican Party is to “get everyone focused on winning, which is the most important thing.”
Lindsay Valanzola, assistant secretary at the Republican State Committee, said she thinks the biggest issue facing the next chair is the need to unite the party. “Over the last handful of years, the party has been extremely divided,” she said. She said the split is about “50-50” between extremely right-wing Republicans and more moderate Republican.
Valanzola said she supported Lyons in the past, but has since butted heads with him and would not vote for him again. “Jim doesn’t do this to try and elect Republicans. Jim’s doing this for his own benefit,” she said.