EXETER, N.H. ― As the other presidential candidates crisscrossed the state trying to consolidate support from Democrats in the final weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Bill Weld was on a far more elusive hunt: a search for pre-Trump Republicans.
At stops up and down the state Saturday and Sunday, Weld warned Republicans that if they believed in what the party stood for in the decades before Donald Trump won the nomination and then the presidency, they needed to mobilize now to stop him.
“It’s crunch time for the New Hampshire primary, which is Tuesday. But I’m here to say that it’s also crunch time for the country,” he told some 130 attendees at a town hall he held at the Keene Public Library, predicting that Trump would behave in an even more authoritarian manner in a second term.
He pointed to Trump’s frequent line at his rallies: “‘You have no choice. You have to vote for me,’ and everyone laughs, because they know, of course, they do have a choice, and that’s what elections are all about. But Mr. Trump is absolutely serious when he says, ‘You have no choice.’ And all of us, if we vote to reelect Mr. Trump, we better get used to hearing those words, because we’re going to be hearing them a lot more.”
Weld was a top Justice Department official under President Ronald Reagan and then a two-term governor of Massachusetts. Yet that seems to carry little currency in a party where about 9 in 10 primary voters are solidly behind an incumbent president whose demeanor and guiding philosophy have little in common with the party’s most iconic names.
“Will the party survive? I don’t know,” said Claira Pirozzi Monier, a former Reagan administration official and now a top Weld supporter in New Hampshire.
Weld, for his part, has been pushing that theme hard ― that if Trump wins a second term, it will mean the end of the Republican Party. He predicted an end similar to that of the Whig Party, which fractured in the 1850s.
He told an audience of about 75 at the Whipple Free Library in New Boston that “half of that split” came to be called the Know Nothing Party. “They also were anti-immigrant, held violent rallies and were given to conspiracy theories. Does that sound familiar?” he said.
“I see trouble for the Republican Party unless this boil is lanced, soon. And I think the latest this boil can be lanced is this November 2020,” he said, predicting that if Trump winds up as the nominee, he will take the Republican Senate down with him. “When they lose the Senate, there will be a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and, unless I’m the nominee, there will be a Democratic president, I hope, if the alternative is Mr. Trump.”
Weld entered the race nearly a year ago and has staged 200 campaign events in New Hampshire. Trump, nevertheless, has an 88% to 7% lead over Weld in a poll of that state’s Republican primary voters released on Friday by NBC News.
“If you weaken the president early and then weaken him later on, that’s better than just weakening him later on.”
“I barely even knew he was running. I mean, what’s the point?” said Norris Viviers, a 58-year-old residential real estate developer who shook Weld’s hand at Murphy’s Diner in Manchester on Sunday but intends to vote for Trump, as he did in 2016.
Indeed, while Weld attracted respectable crowds at his events over the weekend, those figures were boosted in New Boston by a field trip of a couple of dozen students and faculty from Philadelphia’s Temple University and in Keene by a busload of students from Hofstra University on Long Island.
Others attending were Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents curious about Weld’s message.
“Within the Republican Party, I think Trump has like 94% support,” said Jack Blodgett, a 74-year-old retiree who came to see Weld in New Boston and said he would choose from among the centrist Democrats in the race on Tuesday. “I just wonder what someone like Bill Weld is thinking.”
The existence of a competitive Democratic primary was clearly hurting Weld’s efforts to draw voters to his own. During a bookstore visit in Exeter on Sunday, independent voter Joel Schander asked Weld why he should vote for him in the Republican primary rather than for his preferred candidate, Andrew Yang, in the Democratic primary.
Weld told him that a vote for him Tuesday would help “put a hole below the waterline of the good ship Donald Trump,” making it easier to defeat him come November. “If you vote for me, you can be assured that your vote will be against Donald Trump,” he said. “If you weaken the president early and then weaken him later on, that’s better than just weakening him later on.”
Schander, a 42-year-old computer engineer, thanked Weld, but said later he would rather find a candidate he agrees with to vote for, even if it means voting for a third-party candidate in November. “This is a vote against somebody,” he said of Weld’s request. “I want to vote for somebody.”
Weld said he hopes to “exceed expectations” on Tuesday, but that he will in any event carry on to the next GOP contests ― Nevada and South Carolina Republicans canceled their caucuses and primary, respectively, in order to make sure Trump will win all of the state’s delegates ― on March 3 because he believes he can pick up delegates that day.
“No matter what happens, we’re going on to Super Tuesday,” he said. “Massachusetts, Vermont, California, Colorado.”