Former governor William F. Weld said Thursday that he hoped his irreverent nature would persuade millennial voters to support his long-shot bid to become vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, as he angles to deny an outright victory to either major-party nominee in November.
Out of public office for nearly two decades, Weld, 70, said he had assumed his days in politics were over. But, he said, “this is an unusual year and an unusual opportunity.”
Weld said he agreed to be former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson’s running mate at a meeting in Las Vegas last Sunday. Aiming to win the number two spot on the Libertarian ticket at the party’s convention later this month, he said he would focus on courting major donors and road-testing a message that neither Democrats nor Republicans are voicing this year.
“Johnson and I are social liberals and economic and fiscal conservatives, and neither one of the major parties is that,” Weld said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Describing himself as “pro-immigrant,” he criticized presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s plan to deport illegal immigrants, likening it to Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi pogrom against Jews.
“I’m not saying that Mr. Trump is either a Nazi or a fascist, but I’m just saying, ‘Watch out,’ ” he said.
Weld, who said he nearly challenged President Bill Clinton in 1996, noted that he “always had kind of a yen” for politics. He has been an executive at the law firm of Mintz Levin and its lobbying arm, ML Strategies, since 2012 and a strong backer of Governor Charlie Baker, a former aide in both the Weld and Cellucci administrations.
Weld called Johnson “a guy I really like” and said, “This will be like running with Paul Cellucci.”
If Johnson and Weld succeed at the Libertarian convention in Orlando, they would land on the November ballot in all 50 states and furnish an alternative to the mainstream candidates.
Voters and strategists from both the Republican and Democratic parties have voiced displeasure with their options this year, as both Trump and Democratic former secretary of state Hillary Clinton have turned off vast swaths of voters.
Weld’s strategy pivots on taking advantage of the anticipated media attention paid to two former governors from different parts of the country joining forces, hoping to win sufficient support to land in the televised debates.
If that bank-shot approach works, Weld and Johnson hope to deny Trump and Clinton the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
That scenario, in turn, would cast the election into the House of Representatives, currently controlled by Republicans. A Fox News poll released Wednesday but conducted before news broke of Weld’s intentions pegged Johnson at 10 percent in a three-way race.
The Libertarian reliance on limited government and a reluctance to intervene internationally should appeal to younger voters, Weld said. “I think they’d be interested in the idea of personal freedom, which is a bedrock of libertarianism,” he said.
As governor, Weld drew headlines for jumping into the Charles River and sparring with Democrats at the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. Johnson, who is also “irreverent,” Weld said, is widely known as an advocate for marijuana legalization. After serving two terms in New Mexico, he ran for president in 2012 as an antiwar, limited-spending libertarian and received less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
The campaign plans to use the “Howard Dean method” of raising money online from many small donors, Weld said, referring to the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.
Weld’s defection from the GOP constitutes the latest sign yet of the party establishment’s uncertainty about its footing in 2016, with stark examples in Massachusetts. Baker, the state’s popular Republican governor, has said he’ll vote for neither Trump nor Clinton. Baker advisers said he learned of Weld’s plan through the media.
Former US senator Scott Brown and longtime national committeeman Ron Kaufman have endorsed Trump. The state party’s chairwoman, Kirsten Hughes, on Thursday reiterated that she would back the party’s nominee, but has not explicitly endorsed Trump.
The state’s last GOP governor, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has actively worked against Trump and called him unqualified.
Weld’s entry makes him the first prominent Massachusetts politician to join the presidential fray. The list of state political figures who have been mentioned for a national ticket includes: Romney, Brown, Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Democratic governor Deval Patrick, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 nominee.
Weld, who has cultivated a reputation as something of a dilettante, has strayed from party orthodoxy before. He endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president in 2008 over Republican US Senator John McCain. In 2006, he ran for governor of New York as a Republican, but built bridges outside the party and received the Libertarian Party endorsement before ultimately falling short at the GOP convention.
Weld, who backed John Kasich in the GOP primary before the Ohio governor suspended his campaign, said in a Fox Business interview that he and Johnson intend to focus on Western states and New England.
His family traces its Massachusetts roots to the early 17th century. A former US attorney, he was elected governor in Massachusetts in 1990 and reelected in 1994. He lost a memorable US Senate challenge to Kerry in 1996 and resigned the following year after Democratic President Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico. That angered conservative Senate Republicans, and Weld ultimately withdrew.
Weld said he had discussed his intentions with colleagues from Mintz and ML Strategies, and planned to do so further at a Cape Cod partners’ retreat this weekend, but had not vetted it with advisers or allies. He said he would make that round of calls if his and Johnson’s venture gained traction.
“In terms of calling the Mitt Romneys and Charlie Bakers of the world, I would hesitate to do that too early. I think we’ll know in a couple months or even a month if this idea is tangy,” said Weld, who was in New York City for interviews.
“I think the money would come first. If we get a funder or two, then we’ll see if we can talk our way into the polls,” he said.
Weld, whose governorship overlapped Johnson’s, said he agreed to talk with Johnson about teaming up. They connected Saturday by phone, then agreed to meet on Sunday in Las Vegas. He and his wife, the writer Leslie Marshall, flew to Nevada late Saturday and he had a four-hour meeting with Johnson Sunday afternoon.
“We took a night flight out and stayed at the Wynn Encore and had a high old time. Not very high, actually,” Weld said, chuckling.
On Thursday, Weld said the early days of his candidacy would revolve largely around “trying to get on talk shows” and hoping poll numbers percolate sufficiently to trigger an infusion of campaign cash.
Weld, who has praised the inroads Trump has made this campaign, on Thursday compared him to a renowned rock and roll crooner who, ultimately, met an early demise.
“I think he’s a bundle of raw talent, a la Elvis Presley,” he said. “I haven’t seen so much raw talent in a while. Whether it stays the course is anybody’s guess. But it might.”
Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.