Third-party US group mulls ticket to 2024 – but would that just help Trump?

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On a small stage in New Hampshire this week, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman sat together to tout bipartisanship and talk like running mates. They were there on behalf of the centrist political advocacy organization No Labels, which plans to field a third ticket in the 2024 presidential election, and had enlisted the two men to launch its 67-page political manifesto.

Early in the evening, the moderator posed the question hovering over the event: Were Manchin and Huntsman running for president? After a round of applause died down, Manchin deflected, saying they were just there to “explain to you that we need options.” But Manchin’s refusal to announce whether he will seek re-election to the US Senate next year, and his run for mayor, has sparked speculation that he and No Labels could team up to upend the 2024 election.

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No Labels has been around since 2010, largely promoting centrist policies and occasionally working to elect moderate Democrats to Congress. His recent ambitions are far greater, as he plans to raise $70 million, run at the polls in every state in the country, and create a third-party ticket for the presidency. The group has become a specter looming over the 2024 election for Democrats, with polls showing a centrist third-party candidate would sway votes away from Joe Biden and swing the race towards Donald Trump.

The growing prominence of No Labels and its potential to field a third-party candidate has drawn backlash from Democrats and more centrist Republicans. Democratic representatives and political organizations such as MoveOn have mobilized to oppose the group, including holding briefings for members of Congress about the risk of a third-party ticket. Democratic and Republican strategists also commissioned a poll that showed how a centrist independent candidate would act as a spoiler against Biden.

But efforts to show that No Labels could take a significant chunk of the vote and effectively give Trump the presidency only emboldened the group. No Labels’ chief pollster told Axios that the recent poll – which showed a moderate independent candidate would get around 20% of the vote and move the election to Trump – was proof that their strategy was sound and that they had a viable shot at the presidency.

“The people running this aren’t doing it cynically. They have convinced themselves that this is a unique historic moment and they intend to seize it,” said William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who co-founded No Labels in 2010 before leaving earlier this year.

Galston disagreed with the group’s decision in 2022 to focus on fielding a third-party candidate, he said, and after a year of making the case against the change, he decided to leave the organization in April this year. Although he still supports the group, he considers his current assignment to be misguided and has explained how it could benefit Trump’s presidential hopes.

Donald Trump at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida last Saturday.

Donald Trump at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida last Saturday. Photograph: Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images

“I couldn’t accept the formation of an independent ticket,” Galston said. “I saw no equivalence between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and was concerned that this ticket might hijack support for Biden’s candidacy online.”

No Labels and its potential contestant Manchin reject the idea that they will act as spoilers. The group said it would not proceed with its plans if it appeared to move the election to one party, although it was vague about its criteria for such a move, and Manchin told the New Hampshire public on Monday that “if I run in a race, I’m going to win.”

Undisclosed donors

As No Labels pushes ahead with its fundraising and bids for election nationwide, it faces scrutiny over who exactly supports its efforts. The group refuses to disclose its donors, which it is not required to do, but a Mother Jones investigation has identified dozens of wealthy contributors affiliated with No Labels.

Although it includes several major Democratic donors, many contributors favor conservative causes and Republican candidates. A separate investigation by The New Republic found that conservative billionaire Harlan Crow, most recently known for his close ties to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, donated $130,000 to the group between 2019 and 2021.

No Labels officials have cited privacy concerns as the reason the group won’t release donors, while chief executive Nancy Jacobson told NBC News this week there was “nothing nefarious” about its fundraising. Galston told Jacobson early in the group’s operations that a lack of transparency could become a problem, he said, but she told him “in no uncertain terms” that was how things would go.

Jacobson and No Labels did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

It’s unclear exactly how much of his $70 million No Labels goal has raised, though past years and Jacobson’s status as a fundraising veteran show he’s capable of pulling in the big bucks. No Labels’ 2021 tax forms, the most recent year publicly available, indicate that it brought in just over $11.3 million in revenue that year. The organization’s highest-paid staff member was former political commentator Mark Halperin, according to 2021 tax form, who earned around $257,000 as No Labels’ chief strategist. The organization hired Halperin despite allegations by several women of sexual harassment and assault against the once prominent journalist. Halperin, who has previously apologized for some of the harassment allegations against him while denying other allegations including physical assault, left No Labels in March this year. He could not be reached for comment.

The tax forms also show that No Labels paid top Democratic-run consulting firms for their advocacy and communications work. He gave approximately $946,000 in compensation to communications company Rational 360 in 2021. Rational 360 did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

The group has faced criticism from Democrats before, including when it endorsed an anti-LGBT, anti-abortion Illinois congressman during the 2018 midterms. A No Labels-linked Super PAC spent about $1 million supporting the campaign, according to Intercept. But the previous backlash against the group pales in comparison to what it is currently facing, with Democrats growing concerned that No Labels has the potential to cost them the White House.

“It’s pretty clear that a No Labels candidate would help re-elect Donald Trump,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen told the Hill.

No Labels has given itself until Super Tuesday — when a slew of states hold primaries in early March next year — as a deadline to announce whether or not it will lead a third party. The group’s national co-chairman Pat McRory said Monday that if Biden and Trump are likely in contention by then and the group sees a path to victory, it will field a candidate.

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