NEW LONDON, N.H. — Republican voters who would rather have someone other than incumbent President Donald Trump as their presidential nominee this November are down to a single choice.
“It’s not good for the United States,” former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld said about the Trump presidency to the couple of dozen voters who had trekked across the slick roads to hear him at the New London library. He said Trump suffers from insecurity or possibly instability. “That’s why he seeks this total power.”
The other remaining Trump challenger, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, announced earlier Friday that he was ending his campaign just four days prior to the New Hampshire primary.
Walsh said Friday it became clear that no one can beat Trump from within the Republican Party when Trump supporters he spoke to insisted that Trump never lied and this critics are all traitors. “It slapped me hard in Iowa. It’s his party, and it’s not a party I belong to. It’s a cult,” he said, adding that he will continue working to defeat Trump. “I would rather have Bernie Sanders as president as Donald Trump. That’s not even a close call.”
Walsh won 348 votes in the Republican Iowa caucuses, while Weld won 424. Trump won 31,422 — just over 97% of all of those cast, according to the Republican Party of Iowa.
Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and congressman, dropped out in November after only being in the race for two months.
Sanford and Walsh had come at the race from opposite directions. While both said they believed Trump was unfit for the office, Walsh essentially made that the sole rationale for his run, while Sanford stuck almost exclusively to his concerns about the rapidly increasing federal budget deficit and avoided criticizing Trump’s character or leadership style.
Weld has used a blend of both. During Trump’s impeachment proceedings, Weld from the beginning argued that Trump should be removed from office for trying to coerce Ukraine into boosting his reelection campaign by investigating the Democratic candidate he most feared. But Weld also tries to appeal to traditional moderate Republicans by pointing to his record of tax cuts and balanced budgets in Massachusetts while arguing that Republicans need to take climate change seriously and to embrace immigration.
Weld has also spent the bulk of his yearlong campaign on the trail in New Hampshire, hoping to use a better than expected result here to translate into wins in later states.
A New Hampshire-centric strategy was previously used by Pat Buchanan in 1992, who wound up winning 37% of the vote against then-President George H.W. Bush. He still lost by 15 points, and Bush essentially snuffed out Buchanan’s campaign with a strong win in South Carolina, but the incumbent’s appearance of weakness led to the independent candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot and, ultimately, the election of Democrat Bill Clinton.
Recent polling, though, shows a Buchanan-like showing is not likely. In polling from last month, Weld got no more than 9 percentage points in three surveys, with Trump scoring in the mid-80s. (Walsh got no more than 2% in any of them.)
What’s more, the trajectory of the modern GOP has been to embrace the white Christian nativism that Buchanan pitched that year — he famously declared a “culture war” at that summer’s nominating convention — over the northeastern, pro-business wing of the party that Weld represents.
The best chances for Weld and others also lay in the possibility that a major scandal or an impeachment effort would damage Trump’s standing within the party enough that a critical mass of Republicans would seek an alternative heading into the 2020 election. But the report of special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and the president’s attempts to stifle the investigation came and went without much erosion in Trump’s GOP support. And while the subsequent Ukraine scandal hurt Trump with Democrats and independents, Republican voters nevertheless stuck with him.
The long odds notwithstanding, Weld appeared to have won over some fans.
“You are fighting an uphill battle, and I want to thank you,” said John McSheffrey, a 52-year-old owner of a firefighting supply company. “I changed my registration from Democrat to unenrolled so I could vote for you.”
“May you increase and multiply,” Weld said, laughing.
Trump is scheduled to hold a campaign rally in Manchester on Monday, the evening before the primary, and his campaign announced a roster of surrogates who would come to the state on Tuesday, including his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and campaign manager Brad Parscale.
Trump’s victory in the 2016 New Hampshire primary let him recover from a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and set up his roll to the nomination in the following contests.