When former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld became the first person to directly challenge President Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, he was called a lot of things.
The longest of long shots.
“Who?” then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked.
Now, seven months into his campaign for president, Weld is still largely unknown and mostly ignored. One recent poll found him trailing Trump by 67 percentage points.
“The needle hasn’t moved a whole heck of a lot since he got in,” said Bruce Berke, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist who opposes Trump.
Yet Weld and his supporters say that everything is going according to plan.
In an interview this week, he said beginning in August, people in New Hampshire “started coming up to me on the street and saying, ‘Hi governor,’ more than I was buttonholing [them] in the street.”
His top supporter in New Hampshire, Peter Spaulding, likened Weld to John McCain in 2000, when he rocketed from third in the polls in September to a presidential primary win over George W. Bush just five months later.
“Just like now, people back then said we had no chance,” said Spaulding, who was McCain’s 2000 state chairman.
“There is a lot of time between now and the primary, and history shows that,” said Weld. “The campaign just feels a bit more mature than when we started out as a one-armed paper hanger. It’s not mature as it is going to be, but feels about right.”
Why someone might dare to mount a primary challenge against an incumbent president more popular among Republicans than Ronald Reagan ever was can be confounding. But it might be in keeping with his character. This is the same Weld who dressed as a leading lady during college comedy shows, jumped into the Charles River to show he was cleaning it up, challenged John Kerry for reelection to the Senate, and decided, seemingly out of nowhere, to be the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2016.
Weld said he enjoyed the experience of the 2016 campaign, where he was a constant cable news presence launching verbal attacks at Trump. After Trump’s victory, he visited state Libertarian chapters in the 2018 midterm cycle and thought about running for president in that party. But he said a White House bid inside the Republican Party gave him a greater opportunity to directly engage Trump.
Whether he wins New Hampshire or not, Weld says he really enjoys his time running for president. He calls himself a happy warrior.
Running for president this time “will be probably the most important thing I have ever done in my political life,” said Weld. “When my obituary is written I hope [the presidential run] will be well thought of unless, you know, Trump is in the middle of his fifth term.”
Structurally, Weld’s campaign has some kinks to work out. In June, former New Hampshire Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn quietly left her role as campaign manager. She was succeeded by, well, no one. Weld doesn’t have a formal campaign manager.
Around the same time Horn left, Weld’s main strategist, Stuart Stevens, who guided Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, departed the campaign to start a pro-Weld Super PAC.
As Stevens sees the race, Weld is already having a better month that Trump, given that House Democrats formally moved to begin impeachment proceedings this week. Further, Stevens said he already has enough money to buy television ads close to the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary and is hoping to raise more.
“This campaign really doesn’t even start until after Thanksgiving,” said Stevens.
The campaign is non-traditional for a White House bid, largely consisting of a small brain trust. It includes Stephen Tocco, a top Massachusetts lobbyist and colleague of Weld’s at the powerhouse government affairs firm ML Strategies, and communications director Joe Hunter, a former longtime aide to 2016 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
In addition, the campaign consists of roughly a dozen full-time staffers who work out of an office in downtown Boston.
But it sometimes goes unstaffed when all of them join the former governor at events.
The strategy is New Hampshire, New Hampshire, New Hampshire. (Though Weld says he also has formal plans drawn up for Massachusetts and Vermont, which vote three weeks after New Hampshire on Super Tuesday.)
The campaign is almost singularly focused on winning the state, holding 83 different events in the state, more than any other Democratic candidate besides former representative John Delaney of Maryland. Weld’s guidebook? A tourist guide to New Hampshire diners.
It is not just proximity for the Canton resident, but the Granite State stands out as a place where a challenge to Trump could plausibly happen. Among New Hampshire Republicans, Trump’s approval rating is at 82 percent, but that is roughly 10 points lower from where Republicans are nationally. And independents can vote in the state’s primary and among that group Trump’s approval rating has dropped to 40 percent.
“The plan is to win New Hampshire. It is not to get 31 percent and just make a point,” said Weld. “We have a sense of what we need to do where.”
But New Hampshire Republican insiders see the longshot bid by Weld as just that.
State Senator Jeb Bradley, a former Republican congressman, said among those he talks to, “my sense is that the president is in a great position and that there isn’t any appetite for any Republican challenge.”
Complicating matters, Weld is no longer in a one-on-one contest against Trump in the primary. In recent weeks, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and former representative Joe Walsh of Illinois have entered the race. Former Ohio governor John Kasich is planning a trip to New Hampshire himself in a few weeks, two people familiar with his plans said.
Weld sees their entry as a good thing because it draws media attention to the fact that there is a Republican primary at all. The three anti-Trump candidates have banded together, even writing an op-ed this week about the handful of states that have canceled their Republican primaries.
Berke, the unaffiliated Republican strategist, and Spaulding, who backs Weld, both say the number to watch is not Weld’s so much as whether Trump gets less than half of the New Hampshire Republican primary vote.
“Even if it is collectively all the candidates in the high 30s, that should make Republicans in Congress stand up,” said Berke referring to the aggregate total for Weld, Walsh, and Sanford in the New Hampshire primary.
Weld’s campaign appearances are largely in New Hampshire, on TV, or at fund-raisers. He spent Monday and Tuesday this week in Manhattan dodging traffic, talking to small groups of donors, preparing for an online-only debate with Walsh, and appearing a number of times on television.
“It’s treason pure and simple,” said Weld on MSNBC of Trump’s reported pressuring of the Ukraine president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden’s son. “And the penalty for treason, under the US code, is death. That’s the only penalty.”