The bipartisan political group No Labels is stepping up its well-funded effort to craft a “one-size-fits-all” ticket for the 2024 presidential election, which has met with fierce opposition from even some of its closest allies, who fear a return of the White House to Donald J. Trump.
Topping the list of potential candidates is Senator Joe Manchin III, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who is a headache for his party and could stalk President Biden in areas crucial to his re-election.
The centrist group’s leadership was in New York this week raising some of the money — around $70 million — it says it needs to support nationwide ballot access efforts.
“The decision to nominate a ticket” will be made shortly after next year’s primary, on what is known as Super Tuesday, March 5, said Nancy Jacobson, co-founder and director of No Labels. A national convention is scheduled for April 14-15 in Dallas, where a Democratic-Republican team will face off against the two major party candidates. (Mr. Biden faces two long-term challengers, and Mr. Trump is the Republican front runner.)
Other potential no-labels candidates being proposed include Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has said he does not support the no-label nomination and is the national co-chair of the group. But Mr. Manchin has received the most attention lately after speaking to donors on a conference call last month.
“We don’t intend to draw lots right now,” warned former Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and longtime group ally, in an interview Wednesday as he prepared for a meeting with donors and executives in New York prepared. “Our focus is on the vote.”
The campaign has already secured voting spots in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon and is now targeting Florida, Nevada and North Carolina. However, gaining access to ballots nationwide is a challenging and costly task, and the group still has a long way to go.
Ms. Jacobson called the project “an insurance policy in case both major parties come up with presidential candidates that the vast majority of Americans don’t support.”
“We recognize that every independent ticket faces a steep climb, and if our carefully collected data and surveys indicate that a Unity independent ticket may not win, we will not nominate a ticket,” she said.
Aside from the caveats, the action is fueling serious tensions with the group’s ideological allies, partners in Congress and Democratic Party officials who are scrambling to stop it. Third-party candidates stole so many votes that they arguably cost the Democrats elections in 2000 (Al Gore) and 2016 (Hillary Clinton). Republicans say the same about Ross Perot’s role in blocking George HW Bush’s re-election in 1992.
“If No Labels takes on a Joe Manchin against Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think it’s going to be a historic disaster,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat and previously a strong supporter of the organization. “And I speak on behalf of almost every moderate Democrat and, frankly, most of my moderate Republican friends.”
People close to Mr. Manchin have their doubts that he would join a No Labels ticket. He has until January to decide if he wants to run for re-election in his Republican state. But he sees an opportunity to return to the Senate.
Jim Justice, the popular Democrat-turned-Republican state governor, is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Mr. Manchin, as is Alex Mooney, West Virginia’s most closely-aligned House representative, who enjoys the support of wealthy politicians Action Committee Club for Growth.
If Mr. Mooney can take down Mr. Justice or cause him serious harm by citing the governor’s centrist record and his days as a Democrat, Mr. Manchin sees a path to re-election and no real prospect of actually winning the presidency by ticket without tags .
But he’s keeping his options open, at least while raising money under the No Labels auspices.
“Let’s try to bring people back together for the good of the country and not just for the good of the party,” Mr Manchin told the group’s donors in a recent conference call leaked to news site Puck this month.
Mobilize opponents to stop No Labels. Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows this month sent a cease and desist letter to the group’s director of ballot access, accusing the organization of misrepresenting its intentions in pushing for signatures for the state’s presidential election.
The Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit this spring to remove No Labels from the state’s ballot, accusing it of “employing a shady strategy to gain ballot access — when in fact it’s not a political party.” .
One of No Labels’ founders, William Galston, a former political adviser to President Bill Clinton, publicly resigned from his own organization over the push. In an interview, he referenced polls and said voters who dislike both Mr Trump and President Biden – “double haters” – would overwhelmingly say they would end up voting for Mr Biden. If there were an alternative, this might not be the case.
And Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a centrist coalition allied with No Labels that effectively takes over No Labels’ legislative work, are in open revolt.
“I can’t think of anything worse than another Trump presidency and no better way to help him than to field a third party candidate,” said Illinois Democrat Brad Schneider.
No Labels has long-standing critics, many accused of ineffectiveness, pro-Republican support, and an emphasis on raising large amounts of money from wealthy corporate donors, many of whom donate primarily to Republicans.
But the surly criticism took on a more urgent tone when Puck released partial transcripts of a leaked conference call No Labels held with its backers. Ryan Clancy, the group’s chief strategist, said the organizers of the election “have 600,000 signatures and counting” and that they are nearing elections in “about 20 states” and are eyeing all 50.
Mr Manchin joined the call as a break-in: “The hope is to keep the country we have and you cannot achieve that by imposing the extreme sides of both parties,” he said.
Mr. Manchin’s political appeal beyond West Virginia is questionable. The loudest dissatisfaction among Democrats with Mr. Biden comes from young voters, many of whom are climate change-minded and at odds with the coal-state Democrat.
Mr. Manchin is not a climate denier in the traditional sense. He has repeatedly referred to the “climate crisis” caused by human activity.
But Mr. Manchin, whose state produces some of the highest levels of coal and natural gas in the country and who has made millions from his family’s coal business, has long fought policies that would penalize companies for not phasing in the clean energy transition and has accused Mr Manchin of . Biden is promoting a “radical climate agenda”.
But the Democrats are worried. Pittsburgh’s southwestern suburbs border West Virginia, and it wouldn’t take many Democrats running to Mr. Manchin to hand Pennsylvania over to Mr. Trump, they warn.
Ms Jacobson said on the leaked conference call No Labels became “Pearl Harbord” through a March memo by Democratic centrist group Third Way. The memo was bluntly titled, “A Plan That Will Re-Elect Trump.”
“It wasn’t exactly a surprise attack,” said Matt Bennett, longtime leader of Third Way, in an interview. “We are enormously alarmed.”
Lisa Friedman provided coverage from Washington.