the inside game

The Guerrilla War to Stop No Labels From Electing Trump

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Early this month, roughly 40 Washington power players packed into an office and Zoom screens at the center-left think tank Third Way’s headquarters above Connecticut Avenue to address a mortal threat to democracy, or at least the Democratic Party’s grip on power. Gathered together were Third Way’s leaders, top advisers to the two most recent Democratic presidents like Ron Klain and Jim Messina, former Democratic senators like Doug Jones and Claire McCaskill, and Twitter-famous ex-Republicans in the Lincoln Project crowd. The fear was not Donald Trump, exactly, or his legal troubles, or even a leftie nuisance like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Rather, they were gathered to figure out what to do with a group of centrists called No Labels who had spent the last few months semi-openly plotting a third-party ticket in the presidential election. No Labels, they agreed, must be stopped at all costs.

Just a few years ago, Third Way considered No Labels one of its primary ideological allies in urging Democrats to seek consensus with Republicans and defend against progressive insurgencies. Now, however, Third Way’s leaders — especially the press-friendly strategists Jon Cowan, Matt Bennett, and Jim Kessler — have emerged as the vanguard of the effort to topple their old friends’ plans. Both groups were founded in part by ex–Bill Clintonites, but suspicion among loyal Democrats had been rising about No Labels for years, ever since the organization endorsed a conservative congressman over a moderate Democratic incumbent senator in 2014. Since then, whispers had been circulating about the true motivations of Nancy Jacobson, No Labels’ leader, and the level of involvement of her husband, Mark Penn, the ex-Bill and Hillary Clinton consigliere turned Trump defender. After all, in 2016 the group fêted Trump as a “problem solver.”

But the problem now was much bigger and far more urgent. No Labels is planning a $70 million effort to get a place on the ballot in all 50 states, and to those inside the Third Way office it was obvious that this would hand the White House to Trump by stripping Joe Biden’s moderate voters away from him. What wasn’t yet clear though was what exactly they should do about it. The conversation, said one attendee of the secret meeting, was less about crafting a specific plan and “more like, ‘This is really bad. And this is so dumb that it’s either calculated or naive.”

Calculated? Certainly, many contend, pointing to what little is known about No Labels’ donations, such as upward of $130,000, according to the New Republic, from Harlan Crow, the MAGA-inflected Texas billionaire and Clarence Thomas benefactor. (A 2018 report revealed No Labels had wooed Peter Thiel and a Koch, too, along with some Democratic tycoons.) Naïve? Duh, argue the strategists who saw pure ego-driven stubbornness in an effort to convince voters Trump and Biden were equally unacceptable — and that a bipartisan third-party ticket could actually win the White House for the first time in history.

Either way, as a very senior Democrat who’s been monitoring No Labels closely for months told me recently, “At some point, politics is figuring out what’s in your control, and then doing whatever you can. What’s within our control is the delegitimization of them.” In practice, that means explaining to potential donors that giving to No Labels is akin to “fucking around and lighting millions of dollars on fire for washed-up, ’90s-era consultants.” At the meeting, attendees at least agreed that they could try convincing No Labels’ potential candidates that they would lose and be remembered as spoilers who re-elected Trump.

The attendees left galvanized but without an immediate, specific plan to do any of that. But the meeting itself made clear this is not just a small-ball intramural squabble between besuited gray-hairs with a penchant for vaguely named vehicles of influence peddling. No Labels has already secured access to the ballot in important battleground states like Arizona and Colorado — even as the group’s leaders insist they haven’t yet decided to field a ticket, don’t want to be a spoiler, and instead want to be an “insurance policy” if Trump looks likely to be the Republican nominee by next spring. They have also recently been extra-supportive of Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has caused Biden no shortage of governing headaches, just as he flirts openly with a third-party presidential run.

The infighting has already spilled over onto Capitol Hill, to messy effect. Late last month, Illinois congressman Brad Schneider was quoted in the New York Times warning that such a third-party candidate would reelect Trump. A moderate Democrat, he soon found that No Labels was bombarding his constituents with messages that he had “attacked the notion that you should have more choices in the 2024 presidential election.” The friendly fire infuriated Schneider and his allies in the Problem Solvers Caucus, which No Labels helped launch and has been dedicated to finding common ground across the aisle, often to the dismay of both parties’ leaders. Schneider contacted Jacobson to find time for a proper conversation about the attacks (they haven’t yet sat down). In the meantime, he’s doubled down hard on No Labels.

“They say we don’t like the choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and they seem to draw an equivalency between those two that quite simply doesn’t exist,” Schneider said. “I’ve talked to some No Labels people, supporters who’ve tried to persuade me of the value of their idea and I say, ‘What’s your issue with Joe Biden?,’ and they have no policy issues of substance. They say, ‘Well, he’s 80 years old.’ [But] he’s a vibrant, healthy 80, and the alternative they’re pushing is a vibrant, healthy 75, and there’s not much of a difference in my eyes,” he told me, referring to Manchin before painstakingly unspooling a long list of Biden’s bipartisan achievements.

Schneider’s colleagues have largely backed him. “If No Labels runs a Joe Manchin against Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think it will be a historic disaster,” Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips told me. New Jersey congressman Josh Gottheimer added: “This is not an effort I’m personally involved with or supportive of.” They are far from lefties. Phillips has said he didn’t think Biden should run for reelection and Gottheimer is a leader of the Problem Solvers caucus itself. Schneider, meanwhile, has soured on his antagonists, no matter how hard they insist they are trying to forge a new, consensus-driven path. “I speak only for myself, but I know others agree with me in taking great offense to No Labels continuing to try to tie themselves to Problem Solvers and tie Problem Solvers to their plan here.”

Third Way has been ringing alarm bells ever since David Brooks, a high priest of Washington centrism, approvingly revealed No Labels’ plan in a September 2022 column. Earlier this year, Third Way handed a memo using polls to argue the No Labels plan would “make it far more likely — if not certain — that Donald Trump returns to the White House” to Politico’s Playbook, thereby ensuring the chattering classes could no longer ignore it. Jacobson told supporters her group had been “Pearl Harbored,” according to a leak of a conference call published in Puck. In April, Bill Galston, a prominent think-tanker and former Clinton aide, publicly dissociated with No Labels, just as Holly Page, a consultant, cut ties with Third Way in favor of her other client, writing in The Hill that “I am called to do my part” in helping No Labels. After the Washington Post first reported news of the Third Way meeting, Joe Lieberman, a founding chairman of No Labels, shot back in a statement calling the group’s effort “democracy in action,” decrying the confab. “It’s disturbing that some of the people in my party — which is supposed to champion voting rights — are now trying to shut us down.” Brooks reversed himself this month, writing, “This is not the time to be running risky experiments.”

Third Way also considered a more direct early attack, debating this spring whether to try and dissuade possible No Labels candidates from pursuing the idea early on. Ultimately, they decided against it, for fear of a backfire. “What the world has discovered is [Manchin] keeps his own counsel — you’re not going to just go in and convince him,” Third Way’s Bennett, who is another Clinton White House alum, told me. Still, Third Way has been building a list of possible No Labels candidates to watch just in case, including independent Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, former Texas congressman Will Hurd, and billionaire Mark Cuban.

Third Way and its allies have said they’ve found that it’s No Labels’ own communications that have proven most effective in discrediting them, especially to the donors who remain curious. For one thing, there’s the June admission by Jacobson and No Labels strategist Ryan Clancy that they likely wouldn’t go ahead with the plan if someone other than Trump wins the Republican primary, suggesting that the effort isn’t about ideology at all, but the former president specifically. A map that No Labels mocked up showing the potential path to 270 electoral votes for a centrist in a three-way race has also become the object of much mockery for Third Way, particularly as the graphic claims the theoretical candidate would take deep-blue states like Hawaii and Vermont from the Democratic column. “Donors say the approach they make has a lot of appeal at first blush — the country doesn’t want a rematch, so put together a bipartisan ticket. But when you put it on a map, the insanity of it leaps off the page,” said Bennett.

That insanity doesn’t make the effort any less uncomfortable though. Third Way had never broken with No Labels publicly before this year, in part because of all the allies they had in common on the Hill, but also because of their personal ties. Jacobson was close with Third Way’s founders at the time of its inception after the 2004 election and was still friendly with Third Way president Jon Cowan. Now, Third Way is at the center of a push that’s included everyone from the lefties at MoveOn to the ex-GOP operatives at the Lincoln Project, when it’s more accustomed to being attacked from the left. “It makes sense for us because we have standing to do it as moderates,” said Bennett. But “personally, it kind of has sucked.”

The Guerrilla War to Stop No Labels From Electing Trump