Bill Weld announced his presidential exploratory bid last month with a flourish, capturing headlines by calling Donald Trump “a schoolyard bully” and dismissing Washington Republicans for exhibiting “all the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome.”
Then he went dark.
Aside from a few television hits and public appearances, the former Massachusetts governor has done little to suggest his primary election challenge to Trump is something the president needs to worry about.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing to challenge an incumbent president in your own party. Even the best campaigns, even the most rigorous campaigns with lots of money, media and message, still have a tough time,” said Boston- and New Hampshire-based Republican consultant Pat Griffin, who advised Jeb Bush in 2016. “The fact there’s even a question about Weld’s intensity is problematic at this point, because Trump is going to be very hard to beat.”
The Weld 2020 campaign website is a single, barebones page that doesn’t include his biography, any of his positions or even his first name. There’s a place to donate, but no information about upcoming events. While Weld posts several times a week to his 75,000 followers on Facebook, when POLITICO reached out several times in February for his schedule, calls and emails were not returned.
Weld has only held two New Hampshire events since he announced he’s considering a run at a Politics & Eggs breakfast in Bedford, N.H. Both were on college campuses, with what New Hampshire political consultant Bruce Berke called a “built-in audience.”
“He’s going to have to get down and dirty at some point,” Berke said, meaning walking tours, fire station visits and small house parties that aren’t guaranteed to draw a crowd.
The structure of Weld’s campaign remains up in the air. His potential bid is being led by former New Hampshire GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Horn and Weld’s stepson, Marshall Bradlee, but it’s not entirely clear who is in charge. On the day of his announcement, Horn directed questions to Bradlee, who she said was managing the “media side” of Weld’s operation.
Two weeks later, Bradlee said he was “second banana” and deferred to Horn.
Even Weld admits his fundraising numbers are anemic. Asked on Tuesday how much money he raised after launching his exploratory committee, Weld said “not a great deal.” Horn stood beside him shaking her head, trying to get him to stop talking.
“But there’s certain things I can’t do legally until I’m an announced candidate on the fundraising front,” Weld added. He said he’ll primarily visit New Hampshire while in the exploratory phase and plans to make a decision within one or two months on whether to launch an official campaign.
His campaign did not respond to a follow-up question over email about how much he has raised.
“He needs to prove he can raise money. Before the voter primary, there’s a donor primary,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor who supported Trump in 2016. “To challenge Trump in 2020, Weld, [former Ohio Gov. John] Kasich or [Maryland Gov. Larry] Hogan needs to be building out a brain trust that is fit for mission impossible.”
The ragged start of Weld’s 2020 campaign is a far cry from the 1990s, when as a popular, two-term Massachusetts governor he drew mention as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Weld won reelection to his second term in deep blue Massachusetts with 71 percent of the vote in 1994.
Since then, he has strayed far from the party line, deeming himself a “Libertarian for life” in 2016 when he was the running mate of Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson. He has also been vocal in his support of some Democrats: Weld endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama for president over Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 and stopped just short of endorsing Hillary Clinton just before the 2016 election, saying he was “vouching” for her over Trump.
“He is in the curious position of having jumped a few ships in recent decades and so he doesn’t seem as solid of a Republican now as before,” said Massachusetts political consultant Todd Domke, who left the Republican Party the day after Trump was elected.
This time around, Weld said he rejoined the GOP because he’s got his sights set on defeating Trump, and he concedes a third-party run is an unrealistic way to get there.
In Domke’s view, Weld may be waiting to see if a more credible challenger, like Kasich or Hogan, will jump in the race.
“I think he’s basically saying, ‘If no one else gets, in I will,’” Domke said. “It’s not the most inspirational message to get people to turn out to cheer you on, but if he then does become that challenger, I think people will gradually start to look at him more seriously.”
A primary challenge to Trump in 2020 would be almost as daunting as a third-party run for president. The president remains popular with the Republican base in early voting states, including New Hampshire, where more than 80 percent of self-identified Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, according to a recent University of New Hampshire poll. A majority of likely Republican primary voters — 56 percent — say they plan to vote for Trump.
When compared to Weld and Kasich, 68 percent of likely Republican voters said they’d choose Trump. While 17 percent said they would vote for Kasich, only 3 percent said they would vote for Weld according to the poll, which was conducted in the week after he announced his exploratory committee.
“I would say long odds that he runs, and even longer odds that he wins. And this is from a guy who respects and likes Bill Weld a lot,” Griffin said. “Bill Weld is an empiricist. He’s going to look at this, measure it, think about it and he’s probably gonna realize this is a fool’s errand.”
Earlier this month, Weld drew a crowd of 60 people to a New England College town hall, where he alternated his views on cutting taxes and shrinking the scope of government with swipes at President Donald Trump.
Among the questions he took: whether he regrets running on the Libertarian ticket with Johnson and how he could compete against the president.
The laissez-faire style of Weld’s first weeks as a potential candidate are a contrast to the bid of the most recent former Republican governor of Massachusetts to run for president: Mitt Romney. Former Romney operative Kevin Madden said Romney’s 2008 exploratory committee was a well-oiled machine from the get-go.
“On Day One, we probably had more than two dozen already staffing up the campaign headquarters. He had an active PAC in the previous cycle, and that’s where a lot of staff and infrastructure moved over from,” Madden said. “We were already putting together the pieces of what would end up being a national primary.”