Commentary: Reckless No Labels campaign will ensure second Trump term
Post and Courier
May 16th, 2023
By Chris Kenny
Former Congressman Joe Cunningham’s recent op-ed promoting a third-party option for president under the No Labels nonprofit corporation purports to respond to America’s disenchantment with the two major political parties and their likely nominees.
In normal political times, this quixotic bid to diversify the political landscape might be deemed an earnest yet harmless exercise. However, with the Republican Party likely to nominate the only candidate who has ever launched a coup against American democracy, history and practice require that we see No Labels for what it is: a dark money spoiler campaign designed to return Donald Trump to the White House.
Cunningham appears to believe his virtually nonexistent third party could field a candidate who would garner enough votes in the 50 states to win an Electoral College majority. This is highly unlikely and without historical precedent.
Every state has a process for recognizing political parties and placing candidates on the ballot. In South Carolina, the Democratic and Republican parties and a handful of small parties are certified by the State Election Commission, hold conventions to elect party leaders and hold primaries or conventions to nominate candidates, including for president. These procedures are required by law, with deadlines that must be met to remain in good standing, and to place nominees on a general election ballot.
Cunningham holds his group out as capable of assembling a centrist coalition, but it must demonstrate an ability to put its candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. Anything less exposes the effort for what it is — a spoiler campaign. No Labels has almost none of the necessary party infrastructure — it is registered only in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon. It is merely a Section 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization funded by undisclosed donors, which raises questions about who is funding the organization and why.
Even assuming Cunningham’s yet-to-be named “unity” candidate was able to get on the ballot in all 50 states, history teaches that new political parties never win electoral pluralities on their first bid. The most successful candidate heading a new political party was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1912 led his Bull Moose Party to win a whooping 88 Electoral College votes to Woodrow Wilson’s 435. In 1860, the Southern Democrats’ first outing won them 72 votes. In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats won 39 votes. Most nascent political parties win no Electoral College votes, which is precisely the number No Labels will win in 2024. This is not to say a new political party can never become a majoritarian party, just that it takes time.
What is suspect here is the naïve notion that a 2024 No Labels candidate can save the republic from a tyrannical Donald Trump and unpopular Joe Biden when it can’t realistically garner more than single-digit support in a handful of states.
This “strategy” poses a unique problem for President Biden and helps Donald Trump. Trump remains remarkably resilient with the Republican Party, a relative monolith of predominantly white male Christians. The Democratic coalition, conversely, is far more pluralistic and therefore fractious. Democrats nominated Biden in 2020 not because his policies pleased the far left of the coalition, but because Biden was seen as the most appealing to moderate swing voters the party needed to defeat Trump. That bet proved exactly right.
The voters Cunningham’s imaginary candidate seeks to appeal to are precisely the suburban swing voters who avoid party primaries but tip general elections in key swing states. In a Biden-Trump rematch, can Biden replicate his 2020 win in Arizona — a 0.3% margin — if a Joe Manchin-esque centrist peels away a 2% to 3% protest vote that falls prey to Cunningham’s “both sides” argument? How about Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin?
Personally, I believe Biden has been an impressive president with significant domestic and foreign policy accomplishments (including on issues Cunningham touted as a member of Congress). For those dissatisfied with Biden or Trump, they must recognize reality: The only viable path to preventing a rematch is to beat one or both men in their respective parties’ primary. Two non-traditional Democrats have filed to do just that; multiple candidates are challenging Trump for his party’s nomination.
Supporting an independent-minded alternative within the primary system is No Label’s strongest option to prevent a rematch. Instead, this dark money group’s decision to pursue a path that would all but guarantee Trump a second term raises serious questions about whether it appreciates the threat posed by Trump or the consequences of its current strategy.
Chris Kenney is a lawyer in Columbia who has worked for, volunteered on and donated to dozens of Democratic campaigns. He financially supported Joe Cunningham’s two campaigns for Congress and his bid for governor.