The curious case of John Weaver
The Republican campaign and consulting world is divided into two categories: those who passionately hate John Weaver and those who ardently defend his political expertise. The debate has turned increasingly relevant as voters wonder why Jon Huntsman, the presidential candidate and former Utah governor, continues to keep him on as senior strategist to his flailing presidential campaign.
Weaver himself is like a house divided, a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned Republican. He throws himself into campaigns only to lose, to be pushed out, or to leave under questionable circumstances. Weaver consistently over-hires, yet doesn’t raise enough money.
And now more than ever, he’s finding himself on the receiving end of harsh criticism from current and past colleagues. For many who know Weaver, the bottom line is that working with him seldom ends well for the candidates or other staffers.
“Now only four months into it, nearly a dozen highly qualified, talented, and dedicated senior staffers have all quit, in large part, if not totally, because of the way they were treated by one person, John Weaver,” campaign and White House veteran Spencer Geissinger told The Daily Caller.
“That behavior would have never been tolerated on any of the Bush or Reagan Campaigns, and I worked on all of them dating back to 1985,” added Geissinger. “Maybe that’s why they always won and McCain didn’t, and Huntsman sadly won’t.” Geissinger was among a group of consultants who voluntarily left Team Huntsman.
In response, Huntsman spokesperson Tim Miller told TheDC, “It is unfortunate that Spencer Geissinger would attack Jon Huntsman and undermine his campaign. That speaks to his level of professionalism.”
“John Weaver and countless others on our campaign and across the country who believe in Jon Huntsman are focused on electing him President, not participating in character assassination,” Miller concluded.
Current and former campaign insiders told TheDC of multiple incidents where individuals who have worked with Weaver warned Huntsman and his family about Weaver’s spending and irrational behavior.
Several sources told TheDC that Sen. John McCain himself directly warned Huntsman not to hire Weaver.
Mark Salter, a close McCain advisor who was also recently consulted by the Huntsman campaign, however, disputed the story.
“I saw him [McCain] today and asked him if there was any truth to the story that he had called Governor Huntsman and discussed John Weaver,” Salter told TheDC. “He told me emphatically there wasn’t; that he hadn’t talked to Huntsman about Weaver at any time and had no intention of doing so.”
Weaver declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Sen. McCain.
Still, Weaver’s off-the-cuff remarks, spending habits, and management style have landed him in trouble a number of times, while alienating people around him.
“Weaver is a miserable son of a bitch,” one campaign insider told TheDC. “I’ve never come across anyone like him.”
That insider went on to call Weaver “divisive, narcissistic, unprofessional, and in my view unethical.”
At the same time, associates from as far back as 15 years ago defend Weaver to this day. In 1996, Weaver was brought on to Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions’ fledgling senate race. Sessions was the Alabama Attorney General at the time, and his bid for higher office wasn’t going as well as it should have.
“John Weaver was brought in about that point and he basically revamped the campaign, made the difficult decisions, and put it on a path to victory,” said Ben Dupuy, who worked on the 1996 campaign. “And Sen. Sessions won; John deserves a lot of credit.”
“John was the most senior ranking person on the campaign, and also the hardest working,” Dupuy added. “He led by example.”
Still, Weaver’s modus operandi is always the same. At the top of the list of complaints against him is overspending. Multiple sources told TheDC, for example, that this year Weaver had the Huntsman campaign charter him a plane from Washington, D.C. to New Hampshire.
And numerous insiders speculated that Weaver had already obfuscated financial activities involving both the campaign and Huntsman’s Horizon PAC. However, the campaign’s accountant, Russell Anderson, a friend of Weaver’s in Austin, Texas, disagreed.
“Mr. Weaver earns $14,500 per month which is not at the top of the pay scale of the campaign. Mr. Weaver’s earnings from the Horizon PAC have been reported in public fillings,” Anderson said in a statement to TheDC. “He has not received any additional payments since the date of public filings.”
According to the PAC’s publicly available Federal Election Commission filings in June, Weaver had been paid $216,575.
Not everyone in Huntsman’s orbit give Weaver the benefit of a doubt. “He spends 3-to-1 on what the campaign takes in,” a campaign insider told TheDC, adding that Weaver was responsible for bankrupting John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.
“Weaver has no concept for what things cost,” that source said. “He thought the Huntsman campaign would be a gravy train with biscuit wheels.”
Another former Huntsman staffer said Weaver would repeatedly spend excessive amounts of money, then take it out on the fundraising staff when the cash flow ran dry.
“John Weaver is spending Jon Huntsman into oblivion,” said the former staffer, who also told TheDC that the campaign hasn’t paid any of the consultants except Weaver since June.
TheDC has learned, however, that the Huntsman campaign is vacating and closing down its office in Washington, D.C, in an attempt to begin trimming costs.
Many also question Weaver’s track record with campaigns. Many of his defenders point to John McCain’s victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, as well as Sessions’ Senate win. After that, however, the list begins to run dry.
A political strategist who began his career as a Republican and once served as executive director of the Texas GOP, Weaver switched parties after the 2000 election to help put Democrats in office in 2002.
McCain’s 2000 primary defeat was a low point for Weaver, not least because he had been up against long-time rival Karl Rove, who managed George W. Bush’s campaign. A long and sordid history exists between Rove and Weaver. As the story goes, both were rising stars in the political world when Weaver started his own consulting business and hired away one of Rove’s top employees.
Rove’s retaliation cut deep. Those who defend Weaver say Rove spread smear campaigns throughout the state and the GOP, making it all but impossible for Weaver to find work — hence his move to the Democratic Party. Others say Weaver burned GOP bridges himself and grew increasingly frustrated with the Religious Right. Regardless, the Rove–Weaver rift is longstanding and intense.
In 2007, Weaver went back to McCain only to be pushed out in a campaign staffing purge that summer. After that early implosion, some targeted Weaver for running the McCain campaign financially into the ground. One former McCain staffer, however, told TheDC Weaver shouldn’t take all the blame.
“The opening months of the McCain campaign were plagued with many issues, [and] money was only one of them,” said the staffer. “I think John tried to build the best possible team he could given the opportunities the ’08 cycle offered McCain. The campaign had major issues as far as culture, the candidate’s positions on core issues to a primary electorate and a fundraising operation that was not ready for the task.”
And Richard Quinn, a South Carolina-based political consultant who is also advising the Huntsman campaign, told TheDC: “After the stinging loss in 2000, Weaver and I worked together for nearly 8 years, repairing the damage and building a network of support all across SC.”
“Weaver’s role in our eventual victory was crucial,” Quinn added.
But the McCain days and aftermath of the 2007 shake-up were an ugly time for Weaver. Before he was forced out, the campaign hemorrhaged funds under his leadership while he upped his fees to $20,000 per month. By the time Weaver left, Team McCain was hanging on with just $2 million in cash after raising $26 million.
Another scandal from the 2008 race, according to a former McCain staffer, has Weaver’s fingerprints all over it. In the fall of 2006 someone “sympathetic to one of Giuliani’s rivals for the White House” stole Rudy Giuliani’s political playbook and leaked it to the press.
“That was Weaver,’ the former staffer said. “He told them [his staffers] to grab it and they grabbed it.”
“When I say ruthless, that’s what I mean,” the former McCain staffer continued. “But then this is politics; other people do worse things. But that’s why I’d want him on my side if I was running a campaign.”
Then, in February 2008, the New York Times published a story alleging McCain had an affair with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Almost immediately, Weaver was suspected as being the source for the story. Although he called MSNBC to deny the rumor himself, many didn’t — and still don’t — buy it.
Roger Stone is one of them. Stone, who calls himself “a rival who has tracked [Weaver’s] movements in presidential politics since 1988,” told TheDC he believes Weaver was behind the New York Times piece.
“I am absolutely convinced he planted the story about McCain having an affair with the lobbyist as retribution for being fired,” said Stone. McCain himself held a press conference and denied any impropriety.
Three years later, in 2010, Weaver went to work for Democrat-turned-independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill in Massachusetts. He abruptly quit the Cahill campaign two months before the election, slamming Cahill on his way out by saying in an interview that working for the candidate could only help elect his Democratic rival.
“The choice for Massachusetts voters is now between the incumbent governor and Charlie Baker, and as much as I like Tim Cahill, I can’t be party to helping elect the most liberal candidate in the race,” Weaver said at the time. Cahill later sued Weaver, alleging that he purposely damaged the campaign.
Meanwhile, Weaver joined Steve Levy’s 2010 bid for the Republican nomination in the New York gubernatorial race. Levy was a Long Island Democrat who switched parties to run in the Republican primary.
Levy failed to advance to the general election; he was later investigated and forced to turn over $4 million from his campaign account to the Suffolk County District Attorney.
Weaver was also a paid consultant to Chris Cox, who ran for Congress in New York’s 1st Congressional District in 2010. Cox made an embarrassing third-place showing in the primary race. At one point, several Cox staffers who were stalwarts from the McCain days quit the campaign completely: Weaver, Mark Salter, Fred Davis, Jim McCray, Josh Geleris, Danny Diaz, and Michael Levoff.
At least four of the ex-Cox staffers landed with Weaver in the Huntsman campaign.
After the McCain failure and the 2010 campaign disasters, Weaver turned his attention to Huntsman, and was instrumental in laying the groundwork of the campaign and the Horizon PAC after the Ambassador to China left his post and returned to the U.S.
Even in the Huntsman campaign, it’s easy to see Weaver’s Democratic tendencies. As senior strategist, he has put together a path to victory in the GOP primary that relies on independent and Democratic voters in New Hampshire.
Huntsman also became the subject of several news cycles with rogue Tweets, including one in support of global warming, that seemed to laugh in the face of the conservative mainstream.
Last week saw additional staff shake-ups. This time the internal drama continued with news that the campaign’s national finance consultant, Jim McCray, had been replaced with former Tim Pawlenty fundraiser Ann Herberger. The move reportedly came after McCray disagreed with senior campaign advisor John Weaver one too many times over the campaign’s spending.
McCray will still serve as an advisor, according to the Huntsman campaign, but the change-up appears to be just the latest Weaver casualty.
This summer, for example, clashes with Weaver brought the ouster of Huntsman’s original campaign manager Susie Wiles. And McCray wasn’t the only one pushed out of the campaign last week: Consultant Monica Notzon was too.
“It’s incredibly difficult to manage a presidential campaign,” former George W. Bush and John McCain campaign consultant Mark McKinnon told The Daily Caller. “If you’re interested in being popular or getting good press, you shouldn’t do it … At the end of the day, [John] doesn’t give a rat’s ass what people think about him. He cares what people think about his candidate. He wants to win, knows what it takes and will sacrifice almost anything to get across the goal line.”
Huntsman himself was even put on the spot at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library when the moderator questioned him about Weaver’s past statements that the other GOP candidates are a “bunch of cranks.”
“The fact that Weaver was a topic in a national debate should have caused him to resign the next morning,” said Scott Reed, who has worked on campaigns that competed against Weaver.
One current Huntsman staffer described Weaver’s behavior as “narcissistic at best, psychotic at worst.”
In almost every way, Huntsman’s campaign appears to be a McCain 2007 redux. The excessive spending, the rogue strategy, the army of consultants — including the previously unreported Reed Galen, who acted as an advance consultant — and the internal turmoil are beginning to plague the Huntsman headquarters as much as they did McCain’s team.
The common thread is always John Weaver.
If Weaver is trying to re-live his McCain days, the question remains whether it will backfire.
“Most pundits and analysts believe that ‘McCain the moderate’ won over ‘George W. Bush the conservative’ in 2000,” said New Hampshire political strategist Mike Dennehy. “That is flatly inaccurate. … John McCain won so overwhelmingly due to several factors but most of which were that all the voters believed he was going to change and reform Washington.”
Weaver “is taking Huntsman, who is a very attractive guy and a conservative, and is driving him to the left,” cautioned Stone. “He’s trying to relive the past. McCain was able to win [in New Hampshire] because he ran four years previous [and] had 90 percent name recognition.”
Independents in New Hampshire have no idea who Jon Huntsman is,” said Stone.
Another former McCain staffer added, “The lesson Weaver took away from 2000 wasn’t how to win New Hampshire, but that he got beat by a better, larger organization. He’s the George McClellan of contemporary American politics.”
“The Huntsman campaign is historic,” Reed told TheDC. “There is no strategy, no narrative, no planning and no leadership.”
“He sold Huntsman on the McCain model which, I think, loses sight of the fact that no two races are the same,” Stone added. “He’s obviously a great salesman because he talked Jon Huntsman into throwing away his political career.”