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No Labels Is Interviewing Potential Candidates. The List Is a Mystery.

“We’re now in the stage of having more serious conversations with a number of people,” said one of the group’s board members.

No Labels leadership
No Labels leaders know the clock is ticking. Jose Luis Magana/AP

No Labels is interviewing possible nominees for its closely watched effort to recruit a third-party presidential candidate, according to a longtime member of the nonpartisan group’s board of directors.

The list of potential candidates remains a mystery — and a source of rampant speculation in Washington as some politicians have surprisingly publicly opted out of joining the group’s ticket.

“We’re now in the stage of having more serious conversations with a number of people,” said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican lobbyist in Washington who serves on No Labels’ board.

Black declined to identify any of the potential candidates or how many the group is speaking with. But he said conversations with possible nominees have become less theoretical and more grounded since the start of February as the group tries to find a nominee able to defeat both President Joe Biden and likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election.

“We always said that if we go get ballot access, and if it turns out to be Trump and Biden as the nominees, we’d offer a ballot line,” said Black, who declined to offer a firm timeline for a decision. He said the group was cognizant, given the demands of a White House campaign, that it needed to pick someone “sooner rather than later” if it is to continue in its unprecedented presidential bid.

The growing intensity of No Labels’ search for a nominee will prompt a new wave of anxiety among Democratic officials. Party leaders have openly worried for months that the group’s nominee would hurt Biden’s chances of defeating Trump and have undertaken an aggressive campaign to dissuade any potential candidates from joining the White House ticket. Those concerns already grew last week, after supporters of the No Labels effort said a special counsel report faulting Biden for memory lapses would embolden the independent White House run.

But who exactly would lead No Labels’ ballot line is as uncertain as ever. Former Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan unexpectedly launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate in his home state, taking one of the most high-profile potential No Labels candidates off the board. Hogan had been a member of No Labels’ leadership, and as a popular moderate Republican governor, was once widely seen as the group’s potential top recruit.

Hogan did talk about the possibility of joining the No Labels presidential ticket with the group’s leaders, a source familiar with the discussions told NOTUS, but ultimately decided against it because he thought it was more likely he’d win a Senate race in Maryland than a third-party White House campaign. Hogan believes in the group’s mission, the source added, but was concerned, among other reasons, that the group didn’t have a good answer for how it would handle a competing third-party bid from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is considering running on the Libertarian Party ticket.

A spokesperson for No Labels did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Hogan’s decision has left a void on the list of potential recruits. No Labels has spent the last year laying the groundwork for a third-party presidential bid by gaining access to the general election ballot in more than a dozen states and forming a super PAC to back the eventual nominee.

One long-rumored candidate, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has reportedly downplayed the notion that he would run on the ticket. No Labels’ leadership has also indicated that it would prefer a Republican on top of the ticket, someone with the profile to cut into Trump’s base of support.

The list of GOP candidates fitting their desired profile — reasonably moderate with a record of bipartisan achievement and competence in governing — is also truncated. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who some No Labels critics frequently mention as a potential nominee, hasn’t held elected office since 2009, 15 years ago. Another popular former moderate governor, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, already has a high-profile job running the NCAA.

No Labels leaders openly expressed interest in GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley joining their ticket, but they were quickly rebuffed by the former governor’s campaign.

That’s left the group with one other publicly floated candidate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who discussed the idea after bowing out of this year’s GOP presidential primary.

But Christie’s bid would be complicated by so-called “sore loser” laws, which prevent candidates who lost in a primary from appearing on the ballot in a general election under a different ballot line. Twenty-five states have such laws that apply to the presidential race, according to Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Many of those laws haven’t been tested in the courts, Burden said, and a former primary candidate might eventually win access. But, at minimum, Christie or any other former primary candidate would have to fight a massive legal battle in more than two dozen states, on a shortened timeline ahead of the general election, cognizant that being denied access to the ballot in just a few states could doom any hopes of winning.

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“If any of these candidates want to run on the No Labels’ ticket in the general, there’s going to be a lot of litigation that will have to be worked out in the courts in a lot of states, and it will have to be done quickly,” said Burden, who pointed out ballots for overseas citizens have to be printed and mailed by September.

No Labels’ process for selecting a nominee has already undergone significant changes from the group’s initial plans. A planned springtime convention to select the candidate was quietly scrapped late last year. The group’s leaders said afterward that they would likely unveil the selection process by the end of January, but that timeline also came and went without an announcement from the group.

Black acknowledged the nomination process hadn’t been made public, but said the group was relying on a “blue-ribbon, bipartisan group” rooted in the group’s existing leadership to review all the candidates, working in consultation with No Labels’ state-based grassroots organizations. The lack of a more public and transparent process could bolster critics who charge that the No Labels nominee is being selected in secret by a group of wealthy political insiders.

Even No Labels’ allies acknowledge finding a candidate willing to take on the presidential campaign isn’t easy: The eventual nominee would carry the burden of an unprecedented effort to win the White House, which many Republicans and Democrats consider doomed from the get-go, to say nothing of the scrutiny any major presidential candidate receives from media and political foes alike.

“They have to be ready for all of the personal stress, stress on the family, that any candidate would have to endure,” said Rob Stutzman, senior strategist with the New Leaders 2024, a super PAC preparing to help the No Labels presidential ticket.

But Stutzman, a longtime Republican political strategist and adviser to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that he thought a candidate with a demonstrable record of achievement in either the business or public sector could win over the public, especially if the candidate couples that profile with a pledge to work toward bipartisan solutions and bring down the temperature on political discourse. (Stutzman, as an adviser to the super PAC, said he is not in communication with No Labels’ officials about their selection process.)

The opposition research will come, he said, but a good candidate can overcome it.

“As long as there’s a record of accomplishment that goes along with those votes,” Stutzman said, “it can all be mitigated.”

Asked if his old boss, Schwarzenegger, would fit the bill as a potential candidate, the strategist laughed: As a native of Austria, the former governor is barred from becoming president by the U.S. Constitution.

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS.