DES MOINES — Democratic presidential candidates descended on Iowa in a flurry of activity this weekend, attending the annual Wing Ding dinner and speaking at the Iowa State Fair, meeting as many voters as they could and kicking off the primary season in earnest. Top-tier candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders attracted huge crowds who followed their every move as they ate corn dogs and looked at the cow made of butter.
And then, more quietly, there was Bill Weld.
Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, arrived at the fair Sunday morning as a drizzly rain started to pick up. In 2016, Weld ran on the Libertarian presidential ticket as Gary Johnson’s running mate. This time, Weld is mounting a primary challenge to President Donald Trump as a Republican. Weld is the quintessential never-Trump Republican; he believes, essentially, that the Republican Party has been hijacked by Trump and twisted beyond recognition, and that with the right candidate and some momentum, everything could go back to normal. “Patrician” is a word that has often been applied to Weld. During a gaggle after his speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox, a reporter asked what he planned to eat at the fair; I expected Weld to mention Iowa State Fair staples like pork chops on a stick or corn dogs, but instead he said that he generally wanted to eat “something fried,” and asked if the fair had fried dough.
Other Republicans’ names came up early this year as possible primary contenders to Trump in 2020, centrist moderates like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio governor John Kasich. But only Weld has actually gone through with it. He represents a different time, a different era of his party, and a type of “New England Republican” who is becoming a rarity.
Weld led Massachusetts in the 1990s as a centrist Republican who was pro-choice and who recognized domestic civil partnerships for gay couples. Weld isn’t the first Republican ever to challenge a sitting president of his own party — Ronald Reagan famously did so in 1976, taking on Gerald Ford. But Reagan’s conservative movement was growing into a dominant force in the party, and he only lost the nomination after a battle on the convention floor — and won the presidency four years later. Weld’s strain of Republicanism is, unlike Reagan’s at the time, on the wane. And though conservatives who are repulsed by Trump certainly still exist, the Republican Party provides no home for their views. Despite his unpopularity with the American public writ large, Trump is extremely popular among Republican primary voters, and the modern GOP has reshaped itself around his agenda and persona.
So Weld is starting at a considerable disadvantage. It didn’t help that his soapbox speech took place during the rainiest part of the day as a small crowd huddled under ponchos to watch him. Despite the pariah status of anti-Trump Republicans in today’s GOP, Weld didn’t face much hostility, though not everyone watching seemed sold.
John Paul Strong, 78, was curious to hear what Weld had to say about veterans’ issues but figured he would likely vote for Trump again, based on the assumption that because Weld is from Massachusetts, he “might be a lefty.” Weld’s contention that Trump is racist also ruffled at least one set of feathers. “Trump’s not racist,” a man called out to Weld as he passed by. (The same man dropped by Weld’s gaggle to say the same thing later on.) Weld is clear on this point and is as willing to call Trump a racist as any Democrat. Trump is an “extreme racist,” Weld told reporters after his speech. “If the Republican Party in Washington doesn't expressly disavow his racist tirades, they are going to go down with a massive defeat in 2020.”
The thing is, despite all the hand-wringing, the Republicans did embrace Trump in 2016, so much so that he won not just the nomination but also the presidency. And who he was was not a secret. Trump called Mexicans rapists, attacked a Mexican American judge for his ethnicity, and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia, among many other incidents that took place before Election Day. But to hear Weld tell it, the full picture didn’t become clear until after Inauguration Day.
“If this was just early 2017, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you saying I’m challenging Mr. Trump for reelection, I don’t think he should be reelected,” Weld told the crowd. “Because we didn’t know enough, bad as his inaugural address was. It was just one speech. But now it’s been backed up by two years of action.”
Trump, Weld said, is a “RINO,” a Republican in name only who isn’t fiscally conservative or otherwise focused on the small-government agenda that has been at least the ostensible organizing principle of the Republican Party since Reagan. “He doesn’t believe in all the things the real Republican Party used to stand for,” Weld said. “So I’m unapologetic about challenging him here because I don’t think he’s a real Republican.” Weld, for his part, “never met a tax cut [he] didn’t like.”
It’s unclear where Weld’s support could come from. His vision, as he outlined to the crowd, was to “unify the country as opposed to dividing it” — heal the country after years of racist rhetoric coming from Trump, and “make all Americans feel good about being Americans.” He is focusing on New Hampshire and thinks he could win several New England states and then “pivot” west. He said he had “old friends in the Senate” who didn’t support Trump but were keeping quiet, and suggested they would eventually support him instead. Weld declined to name these people in his gaggle with reporters afterward, saying, “I’ll wait till I think the moment is right. And frankly, it will depend on me getting some air beneath my wings in terms of publicity and electoral progress.”
As Weld made his way through the fair after his speech, a few reporters and cameras (including a documentary crew making a film about him) tagged along, as well as a few staff. But he attracted little notice from voters. Apart from the “Trump’s not a racist” guy, they weren’t hostile. But only a handful were more than indifferent.
He did attract a few fans, including three 21-year-old men who all go to Middlebury College in Vermont. One of them, Gareth Cordery, is from Ames, Iowa; the other two, Sean Howard and Jack Lawrence, were visiting him and enjoying the fair.
The three of them are Republicans who don’t support Trump and who became interested in Weld when he ran as a Libertarian in 2016.
Weld “has the chutzpah to stand up to Donald Trump,” Lawrence said.
Their hope, they said, is that Trump will be a “passing fever” and that the Republican Party will “return to normalcy.” They like Republicans such as Massachusetts’ current governor, Charlie Baker, and Vermont’s governor, Phil Scott, and they think that if the Trump “fever” breaks, those kinds of leaders will be newly relevant.
But they were clear-eyed about Weld’s chances. “We’re fully aware that he certainly faces difficult challenges,” Cordery said. The Republican National Committee has been dismissive of Weld’s campaign and clear that it is supporting Trump’s reelection, and Republican leaders in some early primary states have considered not holding primaries at all. “We’re the only ones out here; we recognize that,” Howard said. “We’re not living on a different planet.”
Weld wandered over to the C-SPAN bus to do an interview with the network, then back near the soapbox to do a Fox News hit. At one point, he met the activist liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, who is running for president as a Democrat and spoke at the soapbox after him. He wasn’t staying terribly long at the fair, or in Iowa at all, for that matter; one of Weld’s staffers was carrying a duffel bag and a roller carry-on, and Weld had arrived in Iowa on Saturday night and was flying back east Sunday evening.
I asked Weld after his speech whether he really thought Republican voters would accept him as a candidate, considering that he ran on a different party’s ticket last time. “Well, I haven't changed my position on a single issue. So what you see is what you get,” he said.
I also asked him whether the Republican Party he represents still exists. “To the extent that I’m standing for decency, that still exists,” he said. “I hope that hasn’t been extinguished nationwide.”