GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — The centrist group No Labels signaled on Monday it will present a candidate for a third party presidential ticket by Super Tuesday if it’s clear by then the choices will be former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden — and if the group sees public support for an alternative.
The announcement, hedged as it was, represented the furthest the group has gone to commit itself to going forward with its unity-ticket project. And it underscored the group’s movement from a largely behind-the-scenes presence to a more visible force — one that has left Democrats increasingly alarmed about the prospect of a third-party candidate spoiling Biden’s reelection.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who co-headlined Monday’s high-profile town hall at which the announcement came, is stoking Democrats’ fears.
“I’ve never been in any race to spoil. I get into races to win. And if I get in the race, I’m going to win,” he said. “With that being said, I haven’t made a decision.”
Appearing alongside Manchin on Monday was Republican Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor similarly dodged questions about whether he could be part of a unity presidential ticket.
The politicians’ mere presence in the first-in-the-nation primary state sent top New Hampshire Democrats from Rep. Annie Kuster on down scrambling to slam No Labels as a “spoiler” effort that could pave a path to potentially Trump return to the White House.
“Let me be clear: No Labels is trying to use a false message of unity to sow division,” Kuster said in a statement. “Their plan to run a third-party ticket in 2024 will pave the path for the most extreme, far-right candidate to win the White House — namely, former President Trump.”
On the same day as the No Labels event, a new group of prominent Democrats and Republicans including former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said it was launching a super PAC specifically to fight No Labels.
The group, Citizens to Save Our Republic, paired its launch with internal polling that suggested to them a No Labels candidate could tip the election in favor of Trump. That comes on top of public polling that shows many Republicans and Democrats alike aren’t thrilled with the idea of a Biden-Trump rematch.
“[No Labels] is not a serious effort. But they do have potentially a very important role to play in swinging the election in battleground states,“ former Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.), who’s involved with Citizens to Save Our Republic, told POLITICO outside No Labels’ New Hampshire event.
“If Trump is the candidate, Joe Biden will win,” Downey said. “And the only way that he will not win is if we have third-party candidates on different ballots in different states.”
Pat McCrory, the former North Carolina governor who is working with No Labels, who introduced Manchin and who spoke on the group’s behalf, dismissed the backlash as nothing more than “operatives out of Washington, D.C., who want to just keep the status quo.”
“But I’m telling you it won’t work,” McCrory said on stage, flanked by Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic U.S. senator turned independent, and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis Jr., the group’s national co-chair. “We’re going to get on the ballot.”
McCrory echoed No Labels’ previous comments that a decision on whether to come forward with an actual presidential candidate won’t come until after Super Tuesday.
He said he hopes it won’t be necessary but that if by Super Tuesday “we see the final two candidates” as Trump and Biden, “we will present a president and vice president … if we see we have an opportunity to win.”
If the choices are Trump and Biden, “That’s not the choice we want,” McCrory said.
Manchin brushed aside the counter-offensive against No Labels, saying “everybody has their motive.”
“The business of politics is big business,” Manchin told reporters after greeting some of the attendees packed into overflow rooms at Saint Anselm College. “The politics in Washington is a better business model if they can keep you divided. We’re trying to say: ‘Hey boys, get off your high horse on the right and the left and come back together and let’s do our job.’”
The fear erupting among many Democrats and Trump-critical Republicans is that just enough voters will be attracted to the idea of another option, even though that option stands little chance of winning the Electoral College vote. No Labels’ call for a centrist White House and consensus governing might have enough resonance with enough of the electorate to matter.
Such a threat has united disparate factions within the Democratic ranks. Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive MoveOn PAC said Manchin “should just say so and stop playing footsie with the dark money, MAGA funded No Labels.”
And the centrist Third Way issued a one-pager saying No Labels, for all its attention to the national debt, “does not have a single, serious idea of how to reduce it.”
It’s a reference to No Labels’ just-released “Common Sense” policy agenda, which is inspired by Thomas Paine’s famed pamphlet calling for independence from England in 1776. No Labels’ agenda calls for lawmakers to bring down healthcare costs, “regain” control of the nation’s borders and “fix the criminal justice system so career criminals can’t keep committing crimes.”
Even in the room for the town hall on Monday, several Democrats were voicing concerns about the impact No Labels could have on the outcome in 2024.
“It was interesting to see how many people came,” said Thalia Floras, a New Hampshire Democrat. “I’m very concerned about a third party and I wanted to be here to listen to what they have to say.”
In addition to Manchin and Huntsman, the No Labels event listed among participants former Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, former director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and former South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, whose name turned heads because he was recently endorsed by Biden for his bid to be South Carolina’s Democrat governor.
POLITICO requested interviews with Cunningham and Huntsman. No Labels initially agreed to make them available but then pulled back, saying reporters could instead ask questions during a question-and-answer session for reporters with Manchin and Huntsman.
No Labels could be particularly damaging to Biden in New Hampshire, where the outside group could capitalize on both the state’s sizable share of independent voters and on Democrats’ anger over the president’s attempts to strip the state of its prized first primary.
Steve Shurtleff, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state House speaker who supported Biden’s 2020 bid but is now open to alternatives said the “planets seem to be aligned” for No Labels to make a serious play in the state.
“I personally like Joe Biden. I’ve always supported him. I was one of his presidential electors two years ago,” Shurtleff said in an interview. “But I wish he would step down and not run.”
Asked after No Labels made its case in New Hampshire whether he would be open to supporting the group’s presidential candidate, Shurtleff said: “Depending on the ticket and poll numbers between Biden and Trump, yes I would.”
Kathy Sullivan, a former Democratic National Committeeperson from New Hampshire, dismissed the idea that Democrats dissatisfied with Biden would flock to No Labels instead, saying the group has “been around for a while and never taken off.”
“Most Democrats in New Hampshire are not happy with the situation with the [primary] calendar,” Sullivan said. “But to try to hurt the incumbent Democratic president because you’re in a snit about something?”
The problem for Democrats is that No Labels’ overtures might resonate with moderate Republicans and independents, too.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who flirted with running for president before ultimately abandoning the idea, said No Labels “has a shot at being viable.”
“Most of the country doesn’t want either” Trump or Biden, Sununu told reporters at the No Labels town hall. “They’re just trying to fill that void.”
Mia McCarthy contributed to this report.