Many primary challengers with less of a political resume than Weld have reached double-digits against sitting presidents over the last five decades

It appears at least one prominent sitting GOP officeholder is poised to back former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld for president over Donald Trump – Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently stated that he would vote for Weld over Trump.

Other current (or former) Northeastern government officials like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and U.S. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and (former Massachusetts Governor) Mitt Romney of Utah have not yet publicly committed to endorsing Weld but have frequently criticized the president.

It is also not clear yet if Weld will be the only Republican to challenge Trump in 2020. While some moderate and old-school ‘establishment’ party members saw their hopes of a Romney candidacy fade, they perhaps are still hoping former Ohio Governor John Kasich or, less likely, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan gets into the race.

Should Weld remain the lone prominent GOP challenger to Trump (and his campaign survives into the primaries), just how much support can he expect at the ballot box?

While Trump’s renomination is not in doubt, over the decades several elected presidents have been embarrassed by the amount of support they have shed in primaries to both well-known and fringe challengers.

[Note: Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign against Gerald Ford is excluded from this analysis as Ford was not a traditional incumbent – never having been elected to the presidency in the first instance].

In Barack Obama’s 2012 renomination bid, challengers held the president to under 60 percent of the vote in three southern states – Oklahoma (57.1 percent), Arkansas (58.4 percent), and West Virginia (59.4 percent). [Obama also failed to reach the 60 percent mark in Kentucky with the ‘uncommitted’ vote tallying 42.2 percent].

Attorney John Wolfe recorded the high water mark against Obama in Arkansas (41.6 percent) and also hit double-digits in Louisiana (11.8 percent).

Perhaps more famously, prison inmate Keith Judd received 40.7 percent of the primary vote in West Virginia.

Two candidates tallied double-digit support against the president in Oklahoma – Randall Terry (18.0 percent) and Jim Rodgers (13.8 percent).

Back in 2004, only one candidate registered any noticeable support against President George W. Bush.

Liberal Republican Bill Wyatt of California received 10.0 percent of the vote in Oklahoma on Super Tuesday and 3.9 percent in March in Louisiana.

The most successful primary challenge to an elected president in the modern era was launched by Senator Ted Kennedy in 1980 against Jimmy Carter.

Kennedy won eight primaries outright from March through June: in Massachusetts (65.1 percent), Connecticut (46.9 percent), New York (58.9 percent), Pennsylvania (45.7 percent), D.C. (61.7 percent), New Mexico (46.3 percent), New Jersey (56.2 percent), and Rhode Island (68.3 percent). [Kennedy slates also had a plurality in the California and South Dakota primaries].

In 1972, one of President Richard Nixon’s challengers – California U.S. Representative Pete McCloskey – reached double-digits in three primaries: New Hampshire (19.8 percent), Massachusetts (13.5 percent), and Oregon (10.4 percent).

Ronald Reagan had only token opposition during his 1984 renomination bid with just one candidate winning at least two percent of the vote in any state primary.

Former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen won 2.0 percent in the New Hampshire primary in February and 8.2 percent near the end of the primary season in West Virginia in June.

In February 1992, Pat Buchanan made a splash in New Hampshire against President George H.W. Bush with his 37.4 percent showing, but the conservative political commentator never again reached that mark in the subsequent state primaries.

Buchanan won at least 30 percent in four more states: Colorado (30.0 percent), Georgia (35.7 percent), Florida (31.9 percent), and Rhode Island (31.8 percent).

Although his 1996 candidacy got little attention from the media, Lyndon LaRouche did reach double-digits in multiple state primaries against Bill Clinton.

The controversial Democrat did so in Colorado (11.0 percent), Oklahoma (12.7 percent), Nebraska (10.9 percent), and West Virginia (13.5 percent).

Another Clinton challenger – Westchester, Illinois accountant Elvena Lloyd-Duffie – also won 11.1 percent in the Oklahoma primary.

In 2020, pending his ballot access, one would expect Weld’s best chances to win a notable slice of the primary vote to come in northeastern states and perhaps Utah, especially if Romney gives full-throated support to his GOP gubernatorial predecessor.

Given the frequent narrative (and polling data) that indicates how popular Trump is with the GOP base, one should also expect the media to closely track how much Republican primary support he sheds in primaries next year.

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  1. John Chessant on May 22, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Weld’s last general election was his 1996 challenge to then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and his last general election victory was his 1994 re-election as governor. (Weld did run for governor of New York in 2006; he finished second to John Faso at the GOP state convention, securing enough support to force a primary election, but he conceded to Faso under pressure from party leaders.)

    Which other candidates have been out of the political scene for as long (as measured by “years since last general election”), before launching a presidential bid? Excluding those who did not previously hold office, including Trump, the record likely belongs to Mike Gravel. Gravel’s last general election was his successful 1974 re-election as U.S. senator from Alaska (he lost re-nomination in 1980). This preceded his 2008 presidential bid by 34 years and his current 2020 bid by 46 years, dwarfing Weld’s current mark of 24 years.

    However, Harold Stassen had an even longer spell between last *successful* general election and presidential bid. Stassen’s last successful general election was his 1942 re-election as governor of Minnesota (he resigned a few months into the term for active service in the Naval Reserve during World War II). His last presidential bid was in 1992, where his best showing (3.1% of the vote in the Minnesota GOP primary) apparently earned him one national delegate, which he then lost at the state convention. This means 50 years passed between Stassen’s last general election victory and his 1992 presidential bid.

    As Stassen was the GOP nominee for mayor of Philadelphia in 1959 and for the U.S. House in Minnesota’s 4th district in 1986, he has been surpassed by Gravel for the longest time between last general election and presidential bid. (Incidentally, Stassen lost his 1986 House election to then-Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Mass.), who was born in Minnesota in 1940, during Stassen’s governorship!)

    The record for *state-winning* presidential candidates appears to be 14 years, held by Newt Gingrich and Paul Tsongas. Gingrich waited 14 years between his last U.S. House re-election in 1998 and his 2012 presidential bid, and Tsongas waited 14 years between his 1978 election to the U.S. Senate and his 1992 presidential bid.

    If we look at the last *successful* general election instead, Jerry Brown also hits the 14-year mark, as a result of his 1978 re-election as governor of California and his 1992 presidential bid. (Brown lost a 1982 general election for U.S. Senate.) But in this metric, Gingrich, Tsongas, and Brown are all surpassed by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who waited 18 years between his 1946 return to the U.S. Senate and his 1964 presidential bid, in which he scored an upset victory in the New Hampshire primary as a non-campaigning, write-in candidate. (In the interim, Lodge lost his Senate re-election in 1952 to John F. Kennedy, and lost the 1960 vice-presidential election to Lyndon B. Johnson; both Kennedy and Johnson appointed Lodge as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.)

    Also worth a mention are the favorite-son candidates of the 1930s and 1940s, which in a few states were usually elder politicians who ran uncontested, for the sole purpose of leading their state’s delegation at the national convention. In 1944, former Rep. Charles A. Christopherson (R-S.D.) won his state’s GOP presidential primary uncontested; he was last re-elected to the U.S. House in 1930 (though his last unsuccessful attempt was in 1934). In 1948, former Sen. Herbert E. Hitchcock (D-S.D.) also won his state’s GOP presidential primary uncontested; Hitchcock had been appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1936 and served through 1938, and was defeated in the Democratic primary for the seat, so his last general election was actually his 1928 election to the South Dakota state senate for the 13th district. Hence Hitchcock’s mark of 20 years technically surpasses those of Lodge, Brown, Tsongas, and Gingrich, but the manner and importance of his home-state victory does not make for a meaningful comparison.

  2. Nikoli Orr on May 23, 2019 at 9:04 am

    RE: “Jerry” Brown vied for a federal office in 1980 as well (in addition to 1976, 1982, and 1992); 2) Weld’s last general election actually was as the vice presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party in 2016.

  3. John Chessant on May 23, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    RE: Good catch on 2). For 1), I didn’t count presidential primaries as they are not general elections; for instance, Gravel’s 2020 run is counted as being 46 years since his most recent general election, even though he also ran for president in 2008. (Thus, Stassen’s 1984 run, which is mentioned in the article, is counted as being 25 years since his last general election, even though he ran for president in practically every cycle from 1944 to 1992.) But one could make the case that I should have counted presidential primaries, to better capture the sense of “being out of the political scene”.

    Another minor correction above: In 1944, Christopherson did not win the South Dakota GOP primary unopposed. He defeated another native-son, Joseph H. Bottum, who would later go on to be elected lieutenant governor and appointed to the U.S. Senate; Bottum was defeated in the 1962 election for a full Senate term by the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern.

  4. John Chessant on June 4, 2019 at 2:52 am

    One more piece of trivia regarding Weld: his opponent in his 1994 gubernatorial re-election was his then-“second-cousin by marriage”, Mark Roosevelt (great-grandson of President Theodore).

    Among the most famous examples of elections featuring relatives competing against each other is the 1886 election for governor of Tennessee, between brothers Robert L. Taylor (D-Tenn.) and Alfred A. Taylor (R-Tenn.). (Their father Nathaniel was offered the Prohibition Party nomination, but he declined.) Robert won after a light-hearted, spirited campaign, which came to be called the “War of the Roses” after their supporters wore white and red roses to symbolize the candidates. Alfred would also become governor much later on, in 1920 after Robert’s death.

    A more recent example is the U.K. Labour Party’s 2010 leadership election, the leading two candidates of which were brothers Ed and David Miliband. (The Milibands were the two candidates in the final round of the election, but because the instant-runoff system allows voters to rank candidates, they appeared on the ballot alongside three other contenders for the Labour leadership.) The party election rules are that the three electorates of Labour members of Parliament (and, as of now, of the European Parliament), “registered members”, and “affiliated members” are given equal weight; in the 2010 election, these averaged out to give the victory to Ed over David by just 1.4 percentage points.

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