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Choosing sides

Look Who’s Fighting: Third Way Puts the Beatdown on No Labels

The centrist Democratic group forms a united front with its more liberal counterparts to trash a third-party candidacy that could elect Trump.

Video screenshot courtesy of C-SPAN
Third Way executive vice president Jim Kessler

For many years, Third Way and No Labels have been thought of by inside Democratic observers as peas in a pod. Both are moderate groups—Third Way explicitly Democratic, No Labels avowedly bipartisan—but both occupy, to many observers, the same general space on the ideological parking lot. Both groups are close to or involved with some of the same senators and House members, and both certainly have suffered their share of scorn from groups to their left.

So it was awfully interesting Thursday when Third Way executive vice president Jim Kessler wrote an email to friends and colleagues lambasting No Labels: “The group No Labels is holding its nominating convention in Dallas to select a 3rd Party candidate that most assuredly would hurt Biden and elect Trump or whoever wins the GOP nomination. They have already raised $70m. They are already on the ballot in a bunch of states. And in a map they recently published showing their absurd path to 270 electoral college votes, they’ve targeted 23 states for victory—19 won by Biden and 4 won by Trump. That gives you an idea of what they’re up to and who they really want to elect. And as a reminder, No Labels endorsed Trump in 2016.”

As Kessler’s missive indicates, No Labels has set out to get on the ballot as its own political party in a number of states and set an ambitious goal of raising over $70 million to act as a launching pad for a bipartisan presidential ticket. No Labels wants to be taken seriously—and Third Way is definitely obliging.

First came Kessler’s shot across the bow. Then, on Friday, Third Way co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post with a couple of unlikely allies among the constellation of Democratic groups: the Center for American Progress Action Fund and MoveOn. The effort really covered the waterfront. Third Way is centrist, CAP Action mainstream liberal, and MoveOn represents the party’s more progressive wing. The Post op-ed was co-bylined by the three group leaders: Third Way’s Jonathan Cowan, CAP Action’s Patrick Gaspard, and MoveOn’s Rahna Epting.

“We understand the sentiment that has driven donors to the No Labels banner,” the three wrote. “But there is simply no equating a party led by Biden to today’s MAGA Republican Party. One side believes in American democracy, while the other has attacked it. One is governing from the mainstream, while the other champions extremism. One seeks to work collaboratively on the issues; the other has given way to conspiracy theorists and cranks.”

There’s both public and private evidence that Third Way’s alarm may be founded. An analysis by the think tank found that No Labels’ preparations for a third-party ticket focus more on states that Joe Biden won in 2020 than on states that Donald Trump won. And separate private polling by No Labels also found that in a 2024 matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a No Labels third-party ticket would take away an even amount of votes from both major-party tickets. But that polling also found that a generic Republican versus a generic Democrat matchup would result in a third-party ticket wooing away more Democrats than Republicans.

In other words, depending on the landscape and the matchup, there is every reason to believe that the No Labels ticket would only make it harder for a Democrat to win in the next presidential election.

It’s not clear how aware the larger electorate is about No Labels’ efforts right now. Most of the skirmishing has gone on in the most insider of Washington venues. And there still is no ticket. But there is most definitely a skirmish.

On Friday afternoon, a No Labels spokesperson shot back at the joint op-ed: “Americans so clearly want other voices in our political process, but that’s the last thing No Labels’ opponents want,” said Maryanne Martini. “To them, Americans are sheep that need to be managed, not freethinking people who can make their own choices. But there’s a commonsense majority that knows we can’t afford four more years of endless partisan battles while Washington does nothing about immigration, our debt, our failing education system and so many other problems. They want what No Labels is offering and we aren’t backing down.”

Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, fired back on Friday afternoon, telling The New Republic that “No Labels is describing a world that doesn’t exist.” Bennett continued in an email: “In their world, Joe Biden is an extremist who is morally equivalent to Donald Trump, none of Biden’s bipartisan accomplishments happened, and a third-party candidate can actually win a presidential election. All of that is a fantasy. And we have seen the real-world consequences when third-party spoilers help elect a malign [narcissist] as president.”

A day earlier, in an interview with TNR, Bennett expressed the larger worry his group and others have about No Labels’ hijinks this time around. “Our view is that if they have a third-party candidate that is on the ballot in lots of states, especially swing states, they will swing the election to Trump and that is what we’re terrified of,” Bennett said. “So our goal is to prevent them from doing that by making clear to everyone that this isn’t about electing a third party candidate, it’s about creating a spoiler who will hurt the Democrat and help the Republican.”

This isn’t the first former friend No Labels has lost. William Galston, the respected centrist scholar at the Brookings Institution, said in late March that he would separate himself from the group over its plans for a third-party challenge. Clearly Third Way and other centrists see a limit to professing moderation if it means helping Trump. It’s enough motivation for Third Way to very publicly separate from No Labels and associate more closely with two more liberal organizations. It’s an event that may not matter beyond the Beltway, but it may also herald how Democrats will line up in 2024.