BOSTON (SHNS) – As she stood outside the polls on election day in North Attleboro with the candidate she endorsed to take her seat in the Legislature, Republican Rep. Elizabeth Poirier watched a “constant stream of people” filter through to cast their ballots.
By the time all those votes were counted, the House seat that had been held by either her or her husband Kevin Poirier since 1976 had flipped to a Democrat. Her preferred successor, North Attleboro Town Councilor John Simmons, had lost.
“I definitely think it was an anti-Trump kind of a vote,” Poirier said, assessing what had happened in a district she knows well.
“I think a lot of people went Democrat right down the line, which is interesting from our town because it’s always been a sort of Republican stronghold. Now we have a Democrat in the House and Senate, so it’s a whole different kettle of fish,” she said.
As her party reckons with the results of an election that saw the MassGOP lose even more ground on Beacon Hill, some in the party, including elected officials, are wondering whether the loss of seats like Poirier’s could have been avoided.
“We can win more seats. We have a message. But our message sometimes gets fogged with too much of the national politics and you’re falling too far into what the Democrats want you to fall into,” said Rep. David Soter.
Soter, a Bellingham Republican, puts some of the blame for that nationalization of the elections on MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump who has come under some fire after the election for how things turned out. He also believes the party got caught flat-footed without a strategy for maximizing the potential of mail-in voting.
“I think overall the party spent more attention on national politics than focusing on the local politics,” Soter said. “Not every Massachusetts Republican is one sized fits all. We have folks in our party that are for LGBT rights, and not every is pro-life, and if they are, they may have exceptions. We have to have a chairperson who takes away their self interests and focuses overall on the Massachusetts constituent bases.”
So far, Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk has already announced plans to challenge Lyons for the party chairmanship, and others could follow. But the finger-pointing at Lyons has also sparked an outpouring of support online from candidates who felt Lyons did the best he could to support their efforts, even in defeat.
Lyons, who served eight years in the House before losing reelection and becoming party chair, rejects the idea that he didn’t focus on local elections. He says he sat with every single candidate who ran for office, and made clear that the key to success would be knocking on doors and raising funds to compete with Democrats.
“Each one of those candidates, new candidates, got 40 percent,” Lyons said, pointing to Republicans who ran against incumbents like Rep. Kathy LaNatra on the South Shore and Rep. Paul Schmid on the South Coast. “They are now set up, that district is now set up for us to take a real shot at it in 2022.”
Republican Kelly Pease was one of the non-incumbent Republicans who had success this cycle. Pease, of Westfield, won back a House seat that had been Republican for years until moderate Democrat John Velis won a special election in 2014. Velis has since moved on to the Senate, where he seized a seat the GOP had long held.
“The support from the party was over the top exceptional. Jim Lyons and his team were nothing but exceptional in supporting me and reaching out to me,” said Pease, who lives in Westfield.
Pease said he had a weekly phone call with Lyons to discuss strategy, and the party sent three mailers and ran Facebook ads in his district on his behalf.
“They coordinated and backed me. They were nothing but supportive,” Pease said.
Alec DiFruscia, a Tewksbury Republican, also said he found the support from the MassGOP to be there when he needed it. DiFruscia ran against, but lost to the incumbent Democrat, Rep. David Robertson.
Though the party didn’t pay for any mailers or ads in DiFruscia’s race, he said Lyons helped him coordinate his campaign’s mailers and put together a strategy.
“The reality is it was a tough year across the state and that’s just that,” DiFruscia said. “I don’t think that can be pinned completely on the president or Jim Lyons. Across the board, there’s a lot of things we can learn from 2020. We need to stop the bickering, stop the fighting, and focus on winning elections.”
Not all Republicans who ran this cycle felt as supported by Lyons and the state party. Marc Fantasia, the campaign chair and treasurer of Matt Kelly’s Senate campaign in the Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex District, said his campaign felt abandoned by the party when it asked for help with a $4,000 mailer in the homestretch of their race against Sen. Becca Rausch.
Fantasia accused Lyons of reneging on a promise at the start of Kelly’s campaign in January to provide support if the campaign reached certain fundraising targets, and believes Kelly was punished for not supporting Trump.
Lyons disputes Fantasia’s accounts of their conversations, and dismisses his criticism as that of a sore loser. State Committeewoman Patricia Saint Aubin, who took part in the meetings between Lyons and Kelly, backed up the party chair’s recollection of what was discussed, and said she called Kelly personally after he requested money from the party, even though she didn’t return Fantasia’s email.
“I didn’t promise anyone any financial support, period,” Lyons said. He also scoffed at Fantasia’s suggestion that the campaign was punished because Kelly did not support Trump.
“As someone who grew up loving to play sports, when you start hearing losers talk like losers, you know what they are. They are losers,” Lyons said.
However, the lack of monetary support for some candidates and the diminished fundraising by the party this cycle has sparked some to question the MassGOP’s long-term financial situation. Lyons acknowledged that the second and third quarters were difficult for fundraising because of the pandemic, but said, “We’re fine.”
Through mid-October, the MassGOP had reported raising less than $3 million through its state and federal accounts compared to more than $8 million last cycle, and had $273,970 remaining in both accounts.
Asked about MassGOP Vice Chairman Tom Mountain telling the Boston Globe the party had only enough money to cover a few months of rent and expenses, Lyons said, “Tom Mountain should worry about paying his own rent.”
“What this party is going to be is a lean, efficient organization and no longer going to spend all kinds of money for steak dinners, parking and high priced consultants,” Lyons said.
Lyons also said he does not regret using Trump’s image on the party’s website or sending out fundraising appeals based on the latest twists and turns of the presidential election, nor does he second guess his decision to try to paint Democrats on Beacon Hill as “radicals.” He said Trump helped energize a slice of Republican voters who might otherwise not have come out.
“I was totally focused on the local races. That’s what our staff did. The fact that we have a president who is a Republican on the front of our Facebook page here in Massachusetts, I will make no apologies for that,” Lyons said.
Poirier doesn’t blame Lyons or the MassGOP for the loss of her House seat to a Democrat, Adam Scanlon, who she worries might be too inexperienced to meet the constituent service demands of a pandemic.
She said Simmons simply lacked sufficient time to connect with voters after he was added to the ballot as the GOP nominee after the primary when the original Republican candidate dropped out for medical reasons. Poirier said she and Simmons had two in-person meetings with Lyons to discuss strategy, and the party did what it could.
“I’m sure he feels as badly about it as we do, but you can only do so much when you only have so much money and so many people in the field. I wouldn’t say he didn’t try to help us. He did try,” Poirier said.
Poirier doesn’t sit on the state committee, but if she did she said she doesn’t know what she would do if she had to choose between two former colleagues in Lyons and Dooley.
“I don’t know, honestly. I wouldn’t look forward to getting involved in it. Both good men,” she said.