A centrist political organization that is presenting itself as an alternative to two increasingly polarized major parties is laying down the foundation of a potential 2024 presidential campaign, sparking anxiety among Democrats who see the effort as a crack in the door to another Donald Trump presidency.
The group, No Labels, has secured ballot access for its eponymous party in Colorado, Arizona and Oregon in the last few weeks, all states that have been competitive in the last several presidential contests — even if Arizona was the only one among them that was truly competitive between President Biden and former President Trump in 2020. It has also qualified for the ballot in Alaska.
But the true reach of No Labels is far larger: It appears to have submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in North Carolina, Alabama, Ohio and Florida, according to Ballot Access News, an independent site that tracks election procedures and minor parties.
Officials in those states are either still in the process of checking signatures, or waiting for state-appointed dates closer to the 2024 contests to verify No Labels’s status as a party qualified to field a presidential candidate.
Florida law prohibits the party from running a presidential candidate, though Richard Winger, the author of Ballot Access News, wrote that the law is likely vulnerable in court.
No Labels, founded in 2010 by the prominent Democratic fundraiser Nancy Johnson, seeks to bridge the intractable partisan divide. Its Problem Solvers caucus on Capitol Hill has brought together groups of Democrats and Republicans, though in ways that have sometimes caused headaches among party leaders — the group struck a rules deal with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reform rules in the U.S. House.
It counts some prominent former politicians among its official leadership, many of whom have found themselves on the outs of their own parties. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent, is a co-chair; former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is another co-chair, succeeding another moderate Republican who once harbored presidential ambitions, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R).
But now, its push to qualify a potential presidential candidate — “with the aim to allow every American a real choice and chance to participate in our democracy,” according to a statement the group put out last week — has Democrats concerned that No Labels will act to siphon off votes that might otherwise go to President Biden.
In a memo published last week, the center-left Third Way think tank argued that a No Labels candidate cannot win the presidency. Instead, the group said, its candidate would have the real-world impact of flipping close states to Trump.
“Given the overwhelming odds against a third-party candidate and the mountain of evidence about who their ticket would hurt, the conclusion is inescapable: No Labels is committed to fielding a candidate that will, intentionally or not, provide a crucial boost to Republicans — and a major obstacle to Biden,” the memo states. “As a result, they’ll make it far more likely — if not certain — that Donald Trump returns to the White House.”
The New York Times columnist David Brooks, who spoke at an event launching the group in 2010, wrote in September that No Labels’s effort to create a “unity ticket” in the event both parties nominate morally or ideologically unacceptable candidates will be backed by $70 million, $46 million of which was already in the bank at that time. It is using that money to gather signatures to petition for ballot access and to collect information from potential supporters of a third-party candidate.
Brooks mapped out 23 states where a third-party candidate could receive a plurality of votes and amass more than 270 electoral votes. Almost all are states Biden won in 2020, along with red states including Alaska, Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
To gain access to the presidential ballot in many of those states, the group must tackle the arcane and arduous hurdles written into every state’s law.
Ballot access varies widely by state, ranging from gathering a few thousand signatures — either a set figure or a percentage of the number of votes cast in a specific previously-held election — to paying a small fee.
California law requires an aspiring political party to hold a convention, then convince one-third of 1% of the number of voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election — in this case about 23,310 — to register with the party. Indiana law requires new parties to file a statement of organization with the Secretary of State’s office before candidates can begin collecting signatures to reach the ballot. Iowa law does not even require special paperwork.
The different paths to a presidential ballot may be complicated, but No Labels’s success so far — and its apparent deep pockets, donors for which do not have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission — have alarmed some Democrats.
In a CNN column criticizing the group, Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist behind Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, cited his own prescient counsel to Ralph Nader as he was planning a 2000 campaign: that Nader’s third-party candidacy would result in George W. Bush’s presidency.
No Labels pushed back in its statement last week, saying its polling and voter modeling has found that an independent candidate would draw equally from both major parties, that there is a path to victory, and that the organization does not have “any interest in fueling a spoiler effort.”
The group pledged that it would not offer its ballot line to an independent ticket if the conditions for a successful campaign do not pan out, either because of acceptable major-party nominees or if no strong independent candidate steps forward.