A news story which would have seemed insignificant to most people even in a week where one of the most iconic buildings in the world hadn’t been engulfed in flames, is that former Governor of Massachusetts Bill Weld has announced his candidacy to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for President, next year.
As things stands this bid for the presidency is a long-shot which can only really be measured in light years, yet it should always be remembered that a week is a long time in politics and we all thought precisely the same thing as Trump rose through the polls throughout 2016.
Weld hasn’t held office since his gubernatorial term ended in 1997, though he ran in 2016 on the same ticket as Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, Republican politics has shifted starkly to the right since then and has been an increasingly cold-house for moderates such as him.
Furthermore, not only has an incumbent president failed to win the support of his party for a reelection bid since Chester A. Arthur was passed over by the Republican National Convention in 1884, but Trump has an inordinately high approval rating among Republicans, in spite of his paltry national ranking.
Yet there are a few factors which speak to Weld’s strengths, and could signal that he is not to be written off at this stage, before the race has even started. Firstly, he was a phenomenally popular governor of a state considered one of the foremost Democratic strongholds; he was reelected in 1994 with 70.9% of the vote, a landslide compared to Trump who, in both races where he has stood successfully, failed to win a majority.
Secondly, Weld being both a New Englander and a libertarian could give him an advantage in New Hampshire which, as the first state to hold its primary, has long been coveted as a vital launching pad for underdog candidates: coming in a very respectable second in the 1992 New Hampshire primary is what enabled Bill Clinton to dub himself ‘the comeback kid’ and resuscitated an already unlikely campaign of the small state governor, which had been pronounced dead after being marred by a number of sex scandals.
The political identity of New Hampshire is a fickle thing: residents of the Granite state have both a libertarian streak, combined with a great awareness for the value of their vote after a long-established emphasis on the state’s political importance. There is a running joke that a New Hampshire voter will be on the fence about supporting a candidate if they’ve ‘only met her three times.’
Trump won the 2016 New Hampshire primary, against an enormous field of candidates, by a mere 35% of the vote: considering the majority voted for somebody else, there is every possibility that Weld could consolidate the anti-Trump vote and be propelled to an early, and crucial victory.
Current polls suggest that Weld will fail to win the nomination by a more than comfortable margin, yet the greatest triumph of a primary challenger is measured by the extent to which they are able to damage the eventual nominee: in 2012 the Obama campaign released an attack ad which consisted entirely of soundbites and criticisms which had been hurled against GOP contender Mitt Romney during his own extremely divisive primary race.
The Republican Party has been drifting rightwards ever since Nixon launched his second run for the presidency on a platform of ‘Law & Order,’ a slogan also utilised by Trump, which served as a dog-whistle against everyone from the Black Panthers to those protesting the Vietnam War, and all other who offended the ‘Silent Majority.’ The ultimate aim of Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ was to lure away social conservatives from the Old South who felt disillusioned by Kennedy, Johnson, and the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights; this was furthered by the evangelical Moral Majority throwing their support behind Reagan.
Yet the ultimate measure of hard right success within the GOP, and the origin for the Party of today, came from the 1994 midterms elections: Republicans won both Houses of Congress for the first time since the Great Depression, under Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America.’ In ideological terms, the Contract was very much the predecessor to the Tea Party movement.
Moderate Republicans, typified by Nixon’s Vice President Nelson Rockefeller shown to be in a noticeable decline since George HW Bush’s hard-won nomination, yet there had managed to maintain their control of the presidential nomination; until it was compromised by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, demonstrating the power of the evangelical, hard right lobby.
Trump’s nomination was the first time the extremes of the Party had managed to get their candidate to the top of the ticket, and in doing so signaled that the liberal tradition was well and truly lost the battle for control of the Party of Lincoln.
Weld’s candidacy could be either the dying breath or the last shout for any fiscal conservatives, but social liberals.