After South Carolina helped propel President Joe Biden’s Democratic primary victory in 2020, he installed the state party’s chairman as head of the national party and successfully pushed party leaders to hold the nation’s first 2024 primary in the Palmetto State.
Now, Biden is getting his thanks: South Carolina’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee last year, whom Biden once endorsed, is helping lead a corporate front group’s 2024 ballot access campaign for a potential third-party “unity ticket” — a dark money effort that Democrats worry could throw the election to Donald Trump.
Joe Cunningham, a former South Carolina congressman and Democrats’ 2022 gubernatorial nominee, recently joined No Labels — a pro-business, outwardly centrist advocacy group — as a national director. He is working on its reported $70 million ballot-access project laying the groundwork for a third-party challenger to Biden.
The move comes after Biden selected South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison to run the Democratic National Committee at the urging of powerful Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement was pivotal in helping Biden win the state’s primary and the Democratic nomination in 2020. Biden also convinced committee leaders to reorganize the party’s primary schedule and make South Carolina the first state in the Democratic presidential nominating process next year.
No Labels, Cunningham, the Biden campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the South Carolina Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment from The Lever. A Biden White House spokesperson declined to comment.
Democratic operatives argue the No Labels effort could significantly undermine Biden’s prospects of reelection next year, because the group is specifically trying to appeal to moderates that Democrats relied on to defeat Trump in 2020.
Another major issue, as The Lever reported last month, is that No Labels is a dark-money, corporate influence machine — and thanks to a campaign finance law loophole, the organization will likely never have to publicly disclose who’s paying for its ballot access effort, even if the group decides to formally back a presidential candidate in 2024.
Taken together, the No Labels effort raises the prospect of billionaires using their own ballot line to run handpicked, corporatist candidates. Even if the candidates have no shot at winning, their presence could swing elections — and affect policy to the benefit of the No Labels’ anonymous donors.
Cunningham was once considered a rising star in the Democratic party — a rare Democrat elected to represent the Charleston area’s gerrymandered 1st Congressional District. He won with an endorsement from Biden, who touted Cunningham’s “commitment to put country over party.”
The Blue Dog congressman quickly became a favorite of corporate groups in Washington, but lost his reelection in 2020 after just one term. After winning the Democratic nomination for South Carolina governor in 2022, Cunningham lost by 17 points.
“For anyone who thinks that this is the nail in the coffin or that I’m going away, far from that, folks,” he said on election night.
Cunningham didn’t go away quietly: He is now helping lead No Labels’ campaign to create America’s first dark money ballot line in preparation for a bipartisan, third-party unity ticket, which would feature one Democrat and one Republican, or two independents.
“Like many of you, I am extremely disappointed that we seem to be heading towards a rematch of Trump vs. Biden in 2024, and I am desperate for new leadership,” Cunningham said in a statement. “That’s why I am working with No Labels to secure ballot access for a unity ticket — a Democrat and a Republican on the same ticket for president and vice president — to provide Americans with a better choice.”
He separately wrote a column in the Charleston Post and Courier, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper, arguing that the No Labels plan would give voice to voters in the center.
“Just like Republicans, Democrats continue to push away moderate voters,” Cunningham wrote, arguing that “voters in the middle — whether middle-left or middle-right — have virtually no voice and no representation in Washington.”
Two days after Cunningham published his column, his longtime political adviser Tyler Jones tweeted: “For anyone asking/wondering, I’m 100 percent committed to electing Joe Biden and defeating Donald Trump again in 2024.”
Chris Kenney, a donor to Cunningham’s 2022 campaign for governor, wrote his own Post and Courier column calling Cunningham’s decision “reckless.” He noted that the No Labels is courting “suburban swing voters who avoid party primaries but tip general elections in key swing states,” arguing that this would “all but guarantee Trump a second term.”
Cunningham’s decision to work with No Labels infuriated one of his old friends in Washington, the corporate-funded Democratic think tank Third Way, whose team also believes the third-party unity ticket plan would boost Trump. Cunningham was previously involved with a Third Way super PAC before running for governor.
“We were incredibly disappointed by Joe’s decision to endorse the No Labels presidential bid and the way he chose to do it,” Matt Bennett, Third Way’s executive vice president for public affairs, told The Lever. “Their third-party effort has zero chance of success, but it carries an enormous risk of serving as a spoiler and reelecting Donald Trump. There is no greater threat to America than that.”
News of Cunningham’s hire came two months after he launched a new consulting firm offering public affairs, government relations, crisis communications, and brand management. The firm’s website hints of plans to work with corporate clients and “grasstops” coalitions, a moniker generally used to describe fake grassroots efforts or astroturf lobbying.
No Labels is a picture-perfect example of a corporate astroturf group. While the organization characterizes itself as “the voice for the great American majority who increasingly feel politically homeless,” it is a longtime front for billionaires in the private equity, hedge fund, real estate, and oil and gas industries.
During the first two years of Biden’s presidency, No Labels worked closely with conservative Democratic lawmakers to stymy core Democratic Party agenda items, like higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
No Labels has flatly refused to disclose who is financing its 2024 ballot access project.
“We never share the names of our donors because we live in an era where agitators and partisan operatives try to destroy and intimidate organizations they don’t like by attacking their individual supporters,” No Labels says on its website.
During a call with supporters last month, No Labels founder Nancy Jacobson rejected a request from one prospective donor to name the major funders of its ballot access project.
“You don’t in this day and age put your donors out,” she said. “They get harassed, they become news stories, you know, there’s enemies that we have that are out there. I think you’ve all seen it. So we just wouldn’t do it.”
Thanks to a 2010 court ruling and a subsequent 2014 Federal Election Commission, No Labels will not have to disclose who’s funding its efforts to buy ballot access nationwide, because nonprofits seeking to draft federal candidates are not technically considered political committees until they officially nominate a candidate.
If No Labels does decide to nominate a candidate, it will have to register and start disclosing its donors — but only going forward, not retroactively.
“Full And Fair Information”
So far, No Labels has secured ballot access in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon.
The group’s ballot access plan is generating controversy at the state level, most prominently in Maine.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows (D) recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to No Labels arguing that its canvassers may be misleading voters in their attempts to persuade people to put the No Labels Party on the ballot.
According to Bellows, “numerous” Maine voters have complained to municipal clerks that No Labels organizers never informed them signing their materials meant enrolling as members of the No Labels Party.
Bellows’ office sent letters to more than 6,000 voters who signed up with the No Labels Party to notify them of their party status.
“We think it’s really important that voters have full and fair information about their right to enroll in the party of their choice,” she told the Portland Press Herald.
“Every No Labels organizer in Maine was given crystal-clear instructions that they are asking citizens to change their party affiliation,” No Labels said in a statement, adding: “We have operated under the guidelines provided by the Maine Secretary of State, according to both the letter and spirit of the rules, and we have total confidence in our transparent engagement with Maine voters.”