Bill Weld Exploring Primary Challenge to President Trump

February 15, 2019

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld is exploring a primary challenge against President Trump.  Weld announced the launch of an exploratory committee at a New Hampshire breakfast on Friday morning.

Weld served two terms as Massachusetts governor during the 1990's.  More recently, he was the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nominee in 2016. On the ballot with Gary Johnson, the Party received over 3% of the nationwide vote. This was the best 3rd party performance since Ross Perot in 1996.

Challenging an Incumbent

It remains to be seen how much traction Weld will get or if he proceeds with a campaign.  However, it is worth noting that the history of serious incumbent primary challenges in the modern era is not a good one - either for the challenger or the sitting president. A strong primary challenge highlights fractures in a party, and often weakens the incumbent in the general election. We saw this most recently in 1992, where George H.W. Bush fended off Pat Buchanan, but lost the general election to Bill Clinton. Interestingly, that situation is somewhat the mirror of today. Trump represents the now-ascendant populist wing of the party, while someone like Weld would potentially appeal to the type of GOP championed by the Bushes.

In 1976 and 1980, presidents Ford and Carter faced serious primary challenges. Both prevailed but were defeated in the general election. Another type of situation occurred in 1968, where President Johnson faced a challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who ran on an anti-Vietnam War platform.  McCarthy's strong early showing caused Johnson to abandon his re-election effort. Ultimately, McCarthy didn't win the nomination and Republican Richard Nixon was elected in November of that year.

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