The organizers of No Labels, the bipartisan group preparing a potential third-party presidential ticket, have been conducting focus groups with like-minded voters to help draft a candidate selection plan next year without a traditional state-run primary system.
The logistical challenges the group faces are unusual as it seeks to stand up a one-time ballot line in 50 states without a traditional queue of jockeying candidates or an established political party structure. Organizers say they want to convince more than a third of the country to feel ownership of their effort but are wary of making the process so open that partisans on the left or right can hijack the ballot line for candidates who reject their founding mission of elevating bipartisan compromise.
“The whole idea of this is that this has to be a demand-driven phenomenon. We want a ticket like this to be selected because there is an overwhelming desire for something different,” No Labels senior adviser Ryan Clancy said, while making clear that the group wants to keep its options open.
“The endgame of this effort isn’t necessarily a ticket. The endgame is a voice for the common-sense majority,” he said.
The public announcement of a nominating process, which is expected this fall, is aimed at pushing back on some criticism — largely from Democrats, who have attacked the structure of the group, which shields the identities of its donors. Matt Bennett, a No Labels critic at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, has warned that No Labels candidates will be selected “by a cabal of insiders and secret donors.”
“If millions of actual voters don’t pick the No Labels ticket, it would brand their entire effort as a rigged, anti-democratic farce,” Bennett said. “When you strip away the happy talk, it appears that No Labels’s slogan — more voices, more choices — won’t apply to the only decision that actually matters: choosing a ticket.”
At one recent focus group, Clancy presented three possibilities for a more expansive nominating process: One would be a contested convention process with multiple potential candidates in Dallas and as many as 2,000 delegates selected through a process that has not yet been determined. A second would effectively give votes to tens of thousands of No Labels members who have contributed even small amounts to the group. A third would invite the participation of as many as 77 million people who No Labels has identified in the voter file as potential independent voters.
Clancy said his group has begun to speak with vendors about the logistics of possibly arranging online voting for the nomination. The group is also considering setting up a vetting process for potential delegates, possibly to be led by Dan Webb, an attorney at Winston & Strawn, according to a senior official at No Labels who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. That could produce a list of candidates from which delegates or No Labels supporters could choose.
“This is political innovation, the one last sector that has not had any innovation is politics,” the official said. “I actually do see a live convention, with people tuning in like a Super Bowl.”
One of the unusual features of the No Labels effort is that its leaders are building an operation that can be shut down at multiple points next year if they determine it is not viable. Leaders have said they will not even pick candidates at the convention without a path to winning the electoral college, and they have repeatedly vowed not to float a spoiler candidate that hurts President Biden and helps former president Donald Trump, as some early hypothetical polls have suggested.
Clancy said the No Labels state affiliates that have so far qualified for ballot access in 10 states can withdraw candidates in the months immediately after the convention, if it becomes apparent that they lack a path to winning. In a recent focus group, he asked participants what they thought of No Labels candidates publicly announcing that they would abandon their candidacy if they are not polling at a certain level by the summer.
The effort is also complicated by the legal structure of the effort. The people overseeing the No Labels presidential effort, like Clancy, work for a social welfare nonprofit that does not disclose its donors and is barred by law from directly funding the more explicitly political aspects of the effort. Insurance Policy for America, an affiliated organization that reports its donors to the IRS under Section 527 of the tax code, has been funding some of the ballot access efforts in various states. Separate political operations and, in some cases, political parties have been established in some states to adhere to local laws.
No Labels 2024, a separate super PAC that reports donors and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, has been created to produce the April convention, which is scheduled for the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas. That group has already raised $1.5 million in about 500 donations. The biggest single donor is Wilhelmina E. Robertson, a descendant of a philanthropic family in Texas who chairs the Cullen Foundation. She gave $75,000.
Mike Rawlings, the former CEO of Pizza Hut and former Democratic mayor of Dallas, co-chairs the convention effort. He said the group plans to work out its nomination process over the next month or so, though he also made clear that there would be a “kill switch if we are going to be a spoiler.”
“We have got to start dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on how this works,” he said of the ongoing discussions. “You want to be grass roots. You want people to feel like they are part of a solution.”
No Labels leaders have started to recruit longtime activists to be state electors for the party, on the assumption that these same people will be voting delegates at the convention. But decisions have not yet been made about how many delegates will be credentialed for the event — which is scheduled to take place in a room that fits about 2,500 — or whether there will be an additional group of voting superdelegates who will participate in the process, the people involved say. Clancy said the group wants to make sure the full moderate independent coalition is represented by the delegates.
The list of potential candidates to run on the ticket is also unclear and likely to shift in the coming months. During one recent focus group, participants were asked about what kind of candidates they would be interested in leading the ticket. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) — a No Labels supporter who has left open the possibility that he will run for president — was mentioned, along with former representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), former Maryland governor Larry Hogan (R) and retired Adm. William McRaven, the former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command. A recent No Labels event in New Hampshire also featured former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (R), who ran for president in 2012.
Hogan has publicly said he is supports the group’s exploration, without making a commitment to support its nominees. Sununu has said he has no interest in appearing on any ballot in 2024, according to Ben Vihstadt, his communications director. “His sole focus remains on helping the Republican ticket up and down the ballot in 2024,” Vihstadt said.
Clancy said the town halls or debates this fall would probably include potential candidates as well as others affiliated with the No Labels cause who are not interested in the candidacy. He said they were thinking through how to create events that involved active debates over major issues between the participants.
Clancy said he was surprised by the results of their first focus group that was conducted to help draft a nomination process. Participants were drawn from a list of voters who were identified by No Labels as potential supporters, and they expressed little concern about the group playing a spoiler role.
A bipartisan group of strategists who oppose Trump’s reelection, led by former congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), recently formed a group called Citizens to Save Our Republic, with a mission to dissuade voters and potential candidates from supporting or joining the No Labels effort. Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist working with the group, said it was “remarkably reckless” for the group to just now be working out its nominating process.
“Maybe before they tried to get on the ballot, it would have been good to have thought this out,” he said.
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