For some Massachusetts Republicans, the return of Bill Weld — the law-and-order Yankee who charmed his way into two terms as governor of a liberal state — is nothing short of face-saving.
Finally, they have a reason to show up on Election Day.
“I think for a lot of Republicans, especially in a state like Massachusetts, it gives us an option,” said Virginia Buckingham, a Republican who once worked as Weld’s chief of staff, and will vote for him this fall. “We were kind of in a difficult position facing voting for Donald Trump.”
Weld’s reemergence as a vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson has been viewed largely as another curiosity in a crazy election cycle in which, it seems, anything might happen.
Aghast at Trump’s improbable romp through the GOP primaries, some Republican leaders are still trying to magically incubate an alternative nominee by summer’s end.
Although the #NeverTrump movement isn’t beating down their door, Johnson and Weld are reaching for voters disenchanted with Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In a Web ad launched last week, Johnson and Weld presented themselves as a “credible alternative to ClinTrump.”
“Give us one term, America, and if, after four years, you decide you don’t like peace, prosperity, and freedom, you can always vote a Trump or a Hillary back into office again,” Johnson says.
In other words, why not?
That shrugging, optimistic tone is indicative of the campaign to date: No one seems to be taking it all that seriously. Even Weld’s political protege, Governor Charlie Baker, took some wind out of the campaign’s sails by announcing he would not vote for anyone in the presidential election.
But stranger things have happened — weekly, in this election cycle — and polls show the Johnson-Weld ticket could gain a bit of a foothold (Johnson had 10 percent in a new Wall Street Journal survey).
Meanwhile, the Libertarians say that fund-raising — something Weld was expected to boost when he joined the ticket — is going well. No figures were immediately available.
In Massachusetts, some prominent Republicans have come out in support of the Libertarian ticket, out of frustration with their choices.
“I’m still praying that the party comes to its senses before the convention and someone else is nominated,” said Jennifer Nassour, former chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
“If that doesn’t happen, then I will be voting for Bill Weld,” she said. “And it’s because I actually believe in him.”
To make it onto the Massachusetts ballot in November, the Johnson-Weld team must get 10,000 signatures from voters by the end of August. To qualify as an official party, Libertarians would need to claim at least 3 percent of the vote. Daniel Fishman, regional director for the Johnson campaign in New England and New York, thinks they will easily surpass that hurdle.
Volunteer interest in the Libertarian Party has also been growing, said Fishman. Typically he gets three or four new recruits a month through the party website. Recently, he got well over 100.
“It feels like we are where Bernie was eight months ago: on the cusp,” he said, referring to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
But if there is one thing that defines the Libertarian movement, it is modest hopes. Most don’t even dream of winning. They’re just hoping Johnson and Weld make it into the presidential debates. An influx of their ideas might dilute the toxicity of the current campaign, change the discussion.
Nicole Edgecomb, a North Andover mother and musician who joined the Libertarian party a few months ago and is voting for Johnson and Weld, wants to hear other ideas represented, in the way Sanders shifted the discussion in the Democratic primary.
“I’ve come to terms with this election not necessarily being about who wins,” said Edgecomb.
For others, it’s about who doesn’t.
Nassour, a mother of three daughters and the founder of a nonprofit to advise female leaders, would not back Clinton. Still, she calls her party’s presumptive nominee an “obvious racist, narcissist, and misogynist,” and says he lacks “any appreciation for women like myself or the women I’m trying to raise.”
She is happy to not be torn between “a candidate who is an outright liar or a candidate who is outrightly dangerous,” she said. “I prefer the guy I know and the guy who’s safe.”
The guy she knows, however, is not the one running for president. Many politicos who want to like the Libertarians — including former governor Mitt Romney, who has led the Trump opposition — have opined that they would prefer the ticket if it were upended: Weld running for president, Johnson as his running mate.
Libertarians, meanwhile, express skepticism about Weld, who only recently joined their ranks. Even when he was a registered Republican, Weld says, he considered himself a small-l libertarian, espousing government that stays out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom — fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
But even that framing of his philosophy rankles Mark Mezzina, 23, state coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, the Libertarian movement led by 2012 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. “We don’t want the government intruding to promote social liberalism or social conservatism,” Mezzina said. “We don’t want government intruding at all.”
Weld has also, in recent years, crossed the aisle to endorse Democrats — Barack Obama for president in 2008 and two candidates for state representative in 2014.
“In terms of his policy stances, Governor Weld has really been all over the place,” said Evan Kenney, a Libertarian-leaning Republican. “So it’s easy to question his principles. Truthfully, it’s fair to wonder if he has any principles at all, which is a concern that many have voiced about Trump and Clinton as well.”
John DiMascio, chairman of the Watertown Republican Town Committee, who tried to censure Weld for straying from the party in 2014, thinks Weld’s inclusion on the Libertarian ticket won’t attract many voters. “It might get a couple of people in Massachusetts who were going to stay home,” DiMascio said. “And by a couple I mean, like, two.”
Nationally, though, nobody expects much of an upset. The most hopeful outcome for the Libertarian ticket: to pry enough votes away from the major-party candidates to claim a state or two. That could deny Clinton or Trump the required 270 electoral votes, throwing the decision to the US House of Representatives.
Still, is it likely the Republican-led House would vote Libertarian?
“I think half the country has problems with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, so a third-party alternative has appeal to them and to me,” said Rob Gray, a Republican consultant who once worked for Weld.
But he won’t be voting for Weld. He doesn’t want to waste his vote and fears that Johnson could serve as a spoiler who helps get Clinton elected.
“I love the guy,” he said of Weld. “But ultimately you have to make your choice between the two candidates who have a chance to win.”
Despite Weld’s slim odds and suspicions about his intentions, a confidant said the former governor truly hopes to make a difference in a frustrating election year.
“He doesn’t go into these things thinking he’s going to lose or be a spoiler,” said Mark Robinson, Weld’s former chief of staff. “He goes in, thinking he’s offering a different path, a much-needed different path and the only other viable option.”
“They’re kind of a curiosity now,” he added. “But they’re a very credible curiosity once you get curious and take a look.”