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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

In Arizona, No Labels Is Attracting Potential Candidates It Doesn’t Want

In Arizona, No Labels Is Attracting Potential Candidates It Doesn’t Want

Richard Grayson has an unusual hobby: he likes to run for political office. The first time, in 1979, it was a stunt to draw attention to the publication of a book of short stories he had written. Since then, the Brooklyn native, a former college instructor who divides his time between New York, Arizona, and St. Maarten (where he plans to move if Donald Trump wins next November), has run at least nineteen times. Undeterred by losing, he’s been a candidate for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, and the town council in Davie, Florida. On August 9th, Grayson signalled his intent to run again, this time for Arizona’s Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates public utilities in the state. This was also a stunt, but a serious one. Grayson, very deliberately, chose to run under the banner of No Labels, the “social welfare organization” that, while claiming not to be a political party, has been gathering signatures across the country to gain ballot access in every state in order to have the option of offering a Presidential “unity ticket”—one Democrat and one Republican—in the 2024 general election. The group will do so, according to its co-founder and C.E.O., Nancy Jacobson, only if Joe Biden and Donald Trump are their respective parties’ nominees, and if No Labels has a clear path to victory. In what might appear to be a disingenuous bit of timing, though, No Labels plans to have a nominating convention in April, not long after the Super Tuesday primaries but months before the Republicans and the Democrats hold theirs. (This week, the Democrat-aligned advocacy group Third Way accused No Labels of changing course and seeking to run a third-party candidate in order to insure that neither major party receives a sufficient number of electoral votes to declare victory—which, it said, would throw the election to the House and give No Labels an outsized role in determining the next President. The accusation was based on a CNN interview last May with No Labels’ chief strategist, Ryan Clancy, who said that “if a No Labels ticket won some electoral votes they can use that as a bargaining chip,” as well as No Labels’ own recently released polling. Clancy dismissed the idea as “a conspiracist’s fever dream.”)

No Labels was founded in 2010 by a group of politicians and political strategists affiliated with both the Democratic and Republican parties, with a mission to break through partisan gridlock in Congress and to encourage across-the-aisle coöperation. Its signature accomplishment, sponsoring bipartisan caucuses in both the House and the Senate, has been criticized by Democrats for giving cover to conservative members of the Party to vote with Republicans; meanwhile, a Washington Post analysis found that, during the Trump Administration, a number of Republican caucus members followed the dictates of the White House upward of ninety per cent of the time. Last year, No Labels pivoted away from a focus on Congress and reportedly set a goal of raising seventy million dollars for what it called an “insurance policy for 2024”: gaining ballot access in all fifty states in order to give Americans “the choice to vote for a presidential ticket that features strong, effective, and honest leaders who will commit to working closely with both parties.”

So far, No Labels has raised sixty million dollars, but it has been able to skirt Federal Election Commission disclosure rules that would require it to report the source of its funding. This is because it is a nonprofit organization and not, for the purposes of the Federal Election Commission, what is known as a political-party committee. (A political-party committee triggers F.E.C. oversight.) But, since some of its donors have been reported to be Republican operatives and Trump supporters—most notably the billionaire Harlan Crow and the private-equity investor Tom McInerney, a major financial supporter of the Republican National Committee—Democrats have accused the group of being a spoiler that will take more votes away from Biden than from Trump, allowing the twice-impeached, four-times-indicted former President to secure a second term. Jacobson, who has previously served as the finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, has denied that this is the case, saying that the group would drop its effort if it looked as if it would help Trump win—though it remains unclear how that would be determined. She added, “We will not spoil for either side. The only reason to do this is to win.” (A spokesperson for No Labels said Jacobson is no longer a Democrat.)

Grayson told me that he has taken up the mantle of No Labels to compel the group to show its hand. “My goal right now is to say, look, they have to follow at least Arizona election law,” he said. “They’re a party.” Indeed, earlier this year, after obtaining a sufficient number of signatures, No Labels was recognized by the Democratic secretary of state, Adrian Fontes, as a legitimate political party. (Every state has its own rules and requirements for getting on the ballot.)

Since then, more than fifteen thousand Arizona residents have chosen to register their party affiliation as No Labels. (Biden won the state in 2020 by ten thousand four hundred and fifty-seven votes.) The Arizona Democratic Party filed a complaint in Maricopa County court against Fontes, to keep No Labels out of the state, on the ground that, in failing to register with the F.E.C. and revealing its donors, it was not playing by the rules. The Democratic Party lost, appealed the decision, and, on September 1st, withdrew its complaint.

By then, Grayson had already filed his “statement of interest,” a nonbinding document that prospective candidates in Arizona are required to submit, indicating that they are collecting signatures for a possible run; it is not a formal declaration of candidacy. No Labels was not amused. Its lawyers threatened to sue Fontes, to keep Grayson and other down-ballot hopefuls from running under its aegis. (Tyson Draper, a high-school coach, who has been mounting an effort to recall Katie Hobbs, the Democratic governor of Arizona, and has a TikTok channel on which he posts videos praising Trump and Kari Lake, has said that he’s interested in running for the U.S. Senate as a No Labels candidate.) But, even before Grayson had begun his effort to unmask No Labels, the group was contemptuous of a potential “rogue” No Labels candidate. In a tortuous letter to Fontes’s office last June, the group detailed why it had the right to preclude down-ballot candidates from using its name, and why, even if such candidates did run, the group would not have to comply with state or federal financial-disclosure laws, citing a surfeit of case law to support its position. On October 19th, No Labels did, in fact, sue Fontes, in his capacity as the secretary of state, in an effort to keep potential down-ballot contenders from running as No Labels candidates.

A few weeks earlier, Fontes had told me, “I certified the No Labels party because Arizona’s law is very progressive and very pro-voter, and they got enough signatures to get registered as a party. And now they have notified me that they don’t want anybody running under their party banner in Arizona. And I’ve recently sent them a message that they’re wrong. No Labels voters who are properly registered under that party can run for whatever they want. And the national party doesn’t get to decide. They don’t like that idea, because they believe that it might hook them into actually reporting their finances. They want to manipulate the system that way. So I basically told them to pound sand.” (An elections lawyer I spoke with, who has worked on ballot-access issues across the country, told me that No Labels’ assertion that it can pick and choose when a candidate decides to affiliate with it “is completely baseless.”)

Jacobson and other No Labels leaders, including the former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman, now an Independent, and Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina, have stated on the group’s Web site and in interviews that the public’s political disaffection is what’s driving their quest to pave the way for a unity ticket. They cite polls showing that a majority of Americans do not want to vote for either Trump or Biden and the group’s own poll from August, in which nearly sixty-three per cent of registered voters in eight battleground states said that they would “consider” a moderate third-party candidate if there is a Trump-and-Biden rematch, and they argue that this moment is especially ripe for a different kind of politics. But this is not the first time that a group of self-professed “centrists,” claiming that the established parties are too extreme and divorced from the concerns of average citizens, have organized to push a bipartisan ticket—and, if it had not been for that earlier effort, No Labels would have to reveal its funders’ identities.

In 2006, a group of prominent Democratic and Republican strategists created Unity08, “a kind of would-be post-partisan political party,” as U.S. district judge Stephen F. Williams later described it, with the intention of running a bipartisan Presidential slate in the 2008 election. A press release announcing that effort reads very much like material on the No Labels Web site: “Unity08 is a recently established political movement attracting Americans deeply concerned with the polarization of our political system. Unity08 will provide American voters access to a new and highly participatory process to nominate and elect a bipartisan ticket to the White House in 2008, unconstrained by the limitations of the current system.” Doug Bailey, a Republican political consultant who was one of Unity08’s co-founders, said at the time, “What we are trying to do is to create a forum for people who are in the middle who have been left out of politics.”

Unity08 fell apart before the election, but its leaders continued a legal challenge to an F.E.C. advisory opinion that the group needed to abide by campaign-finance disclosure laws, a pursuit undertaken, they said, “both for Unity08 and any similar movement in the future.” And in that they succeeded. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, reversing a lower-court ruling, sided with Unity08, finding that, as Judge Williams wrote in the opinion, until the group selected a “clearly identified candidate” it would not be subject to regulation. This opened the door for dark-money groups such as No Labels to operate without oversight, as it is now doing.

In July, on “Meet the Press,” Jacobson said that “there has never been a group in this country that represents the commonsense majority. Isn’t it fair that they get a seat at the table?” Common sense, of course, means different things to different people. The group has posted a thirty-point “Common Sense Policy” on its Web site which, it says, “provides a clear blueprint for where America’s commonsense majority wants this country to go—and it shows how we can address even the most contentious issues with civility and respect,” yet it is a remarkably unserious, anodyne, and unpracticable document. On abortion, for example, the group proposes that “America must strike a balance between protecting women’s rights to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life.” Its big foreign-policy idea is that “America should make it a national priority to have the most efficient, most effective, and most powerful military in the world to protect democracy at home and abroad.” Climate change does not explicitly make it onto the agenda, but an “all of the above energy strategy” does—one that is also favored by the fossil-fuel industry and by politicians such as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat and former honorary No Labels co-chair, who was the Senate’s No. 1 recipient of fossil-fuel-industry largesse in the most recent election cycle.

Manchin has been rumored to be considering a No Labels Presidential run; he says that he hasn’t ruled it out. Jacobson, when asked, has said that the group has made no decisions yet about to whom it will “offer our ballot line.” That may seem a strange and dissembling way to describe a nominee for the highest political office in the land, but it dovetails with the group’s declaration that “No Labels is solely getting ballot access. That’s it. We will not run a presidential campaign.” Jacobson, on “Meet the Press,” reiterated the point, saying, “A party is running candidates up and down the ballot. That is not what we’re doing.” Of course, by bowing out of the political process once it “offers its ballot line to a candidate”—who will then have to do the heavy lifting of running for office—No Labels might succeed in maintaining its status as a social-welfare organization, thus avoiding F.E.C. scrutiny and having to reveal its backers.

Even if the group’s leadership decides not to nominate a candidate in 2024, however, if state party organizations nominate a candidate themselves to run on the No Labels ballot line, it may not be able to keep its pledge that it will not be a spoiler. As Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, wrote in 2012, after alumni of Unity08 had established another failed bipartisan “centrist” Presidential effort, this one called Americans Elect, “National leaders of Americans Elect may be unhappy if state units choose their own nominees, but history, the Constitution, and election law restrict their power over this matter.” Richard Grayson’s provocation in Arizona illustrates that getting on the ballot in all fifty states does not guarantee that No Labels will be able to control its own fate—or ours. ♦

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