Lyons, of Andover, steers Republican party far right

File photo Former state Rep. Jim Lyons talks about getting hundreds of text and emails following the gas crisis in Andover. Lyons lost in the last election and is now head of the state Republican party.

 

BOSTON — The state GOP is tacking sharply to the right under a new leader, former state Rep. Jim Lyons, embracing many of the hard-line positions of the national party under President Donald Trump.

Lyons, who took over as party chairman in January, has unleashed a barrage of criticism at Beacon Hill Democrats, accusing them of promoting "infanticide" for backing a late-term abortion bill and blasting them for proposals to allow "Gender X" classification on driver's licenses and limit cooperation with federal immigration crackdowns.

The attacks underscore how the state party has shifted from a moderate platform under the leadership of Lyons, a conservative who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

It also puts the state GOP at odds with Gov. Charlie Baker, the party's standard-bearer, who has pursued a more moderate agenda since becoming governor more than four years ago.

"The voters who crossed over to support Charlie Baker aren't going to like this move," said Erin O'Brien, professor and chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Baker won his reelection bid by courting Democrats and moderates in his party, and this new appeal to the national GOP isn't going to sit well with them."

Lyons, of Andover, defends the new approach and said he's focused on unifying the party by bringing up issues that matter to conservatives who were marginalized under previous party leadership.

"There's a divide in the Republican Party, and if you don’t acknowledge it you’re not being honest," he said in an interview. "Conservatives feel like they’ve been left out of the discussion."

He said the party's state committee agrees with the new direction, voting unanimously earlier this month to condemn a pair of bills, known as the "ROE Act," to strengthen abortion rights.

Those proposals, backed by more than 50 lawmakers, would permit late-term abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases where the fetus is not expected to survive. Current law allows an abortion after 24 weeks only if necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

"The Democrats are proposing to eliminate medical care for a child born alive in an abortion clinic," Lyons said. "That's outrageous. We're just pointing out the facts."

The GOP seems to be reveling in its new aggressive stance, boasting in a recent newsletter that the leadership is "making a ruckus and we won’t back down."

"For far too long, we’ve been too quiet as Democrats on Beacon Hill and beyond have worked to eliminate, blame, or delete our voices," the party's commentary read. "We’ve forced the Democrats to own up to their positions on ultra-left ideas such as sanctuary states, late-term abortions, and a graduated income tax system."

Not surprisingly, the state's Democratic Party has seized on the GOP's shift to the right as evidence that it has aligned with Trump and the national party.

"If you thought the Massachusetts Republican Party was less bigoted and hateful than Republicans on the national stage, think again," Gus Bickford, chairman of the state's Democrats, said in a statement responding to a recent MassGOP Facebook post criticizing Democratic support for the proposed Equality Act in Congress.

"The MassGOP has made clear where it stands, and that is in favor of discrimination against the LGBTQ community," Bickford added.

Lyons was elected chairman by the Republican State Committee in January, edging out MassGOP Treasurer Brent Andersen, by a vote of 47 to 30, according to the party. He replaced Kirsten Hughes, a Quincy city councilor who took over as party chairwoman in 2013. She announced she was stepping down after last November's elections.

Baker, a moderate Republican who supported Lyons' failed bid for re-election to his 18th Essex District seat last fall, didn’t publicly back a candidate in the race to succeed Hughes.

In 2016, Baker, who supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights, backed a roster of candidates running against conservatives for seats on the party's 80-member governing body. Many of the candidates endorsed by Baker won or retained their seats, according to party officials.

Still, besides his own political success, Baker hasn't been able to elect many GOP candidates to the Legislature in a state where Democrats hold super-majorities in the House and Senate. Last fall the GOP got wiped out in every statewide race, except governor, and lost three seats in the Legislature.

Baker has declined to publicly criticize Lyons' leadership or the GOP's tack to the right, but recently he complained about the "inflated language that exists on all sides in politics."

"I've always supported a woman's right to choose," he told WBZ-TV's John Keller recently. "While we share similar views on a number of issues ... there's plenty of issues we disagree on."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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