Bipartisan 'No Labels' group aims to protect moderates in primary fights

By Ben Kamisar

For The Hill
March 25, 2018

The bipartisan No Labels group is looking to expand its fight for political moderates to more than a dozen primaries this year after being emboldened by Rep. Daniel Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) primary victory last week.

No Labels is planning an aggressive effort to spend tens of millions of dollars to protect moderates in both parties from primary challenges, in an attempt to give incumbents incentives not to cater to the party grass roots who typically dominate primary contests.

No Labels says its fight to save moderates in both parties is vital to combatting Washington gridlock.

“Most people in Congress don’t care what most people think. What they care about is what is the narrow slice of their primary voters — which, for about 9 of 10 Congress-people, is the only election that matters — what do they think?” said Ryan Clancy, the chief strategist at No Labels.

“Until the center gets some political organization, until it has some capacity to fend off the influence of the extremes on both sides, there’s no realistic way out of this mess.”

Lipinski, a Blue Dogs co-chair and staunch opponent of abortion rights, has often clashed with his caucus on issues like ObamaCare and the DREAM Act. Lipinski barely won his primary on Tuesday night after a strong challenge from Marie Newman, a first-time candidate who was backed from the left.

A coalition of major progressive groups like MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America joined in to spend more than $1.6 million to paint Lipinski as a “Democrat-in-name-only” and build out an effort for Newman on the ground.

The group’s ads compared Lipinski to President Trump, highlighting Lipinski’s votes against benefits for same-sex marriages and against allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest.

No Labels countered with a nine-month, $1 million effort boosting Lipinski through its allied super PAC, United for Progress. The super PAC spent money on voter targeting, placed media, mailers, digital ads and a get-out-the-vote campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While Newman lost the primary, her strong showing against an incumbent — Lipinski won by just two percentage points — has encouraged progressives who say Democrats will win by embracing liberal values.

Ilyse Hogue, a top Newman ally who heads the pro-abortion rights NARAL, compared the primary to the progressive push that defeated then-Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary after he supported the Iraq War. Lieberman, running as an independent after his primary loss, ultimately won reelection anyway.

“The strength of Marie Newman’s campaign, which stood true to her beliefs and loyal to the progress America is making, will bring a new reckoning,” Hogue wrote in a piece on Medium.

“As an elected official, when you turn your back on our shared values and our essential human rights, voters will hold you accountable  —  no matter how long you’ve been in office.”

But the No Labels team disagrees, arguing that Lipinski’s victory in the face of an unprecedented spending campaign against him proves there’s still room for moderates in the Democratic Party.

“We proved that even a Democrat who is centrist but also has some of these outside-the-mainstream social positions, even someone with that profile can survive and thrive in the Democratic primary,” said Matt Kalmans, a strategist advising the broader No Labels effort, which is called “Country Forward.”

The United for Progress super PAC is housed under that Country Forward umbrella.

“Going back to 2010 with the Tea Party wave, there’s this narrative that there’s all this energy on the far left and on the far right,” Kalmans added.

“This election is strong proof for the fact that if you engage with voters that don’t fall into either of those corners and you explain to them that their congressman is doing something for them, they’ll pick that person every day of the week.”

Neither strategist would go into detail as to which races they are planning to target in the future, for fears of tipping off opponents. But they said that the No Labels effort plans to get involved in more than a dozen primary races that meet one of three criteria.

First, Country Forward plans to protect members of the moderate House Problem Solvers Caucus, lawmakers considered sympathetic to the No Labels cause who could face tough primary challenges.

Second, they’ll target primaries in open seats where a candidate who might be a good fit for the Problem Solvers Caucus faces what Clancy referred to as a “flamethrower” opponent.

And they may back challenges to incumbents that No Labels considers obstructionists.

The 2018 cycle isn’t Country Forward’s first experience at electoral politics. The group successfully helped to knock off then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who lost his 2016 primary against a Republican rival who pitched himself as a more pragmatic choice. And they helped now-Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) in his open seat contest that year, as well.

The focus on primaries comes as many members of the Problem Solvers Caucus face tough reelection bids.

Republican Reps. Mike Coffman (Colo.), Ryan Costello (Pa.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), John Katko (N.Y.), Tom MacArthur (N.J.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and David Young (Iowa) are all listed on the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s list of competitive House races.

So are Democratic members of the caucus: Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) and Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.).

A Democratic wave in November could bring down a number of Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. But No Labels doesn’t plan to get involved in general elections, believing that focusing on primary fights will help the group avoid angering either party.

“The goal is not to oppose the parties, the goal is not to be hostile to Democrats or Republicans,” Clancy said.
“The goal is to ensure that in every race around the country where there’s a fight between someone who is eminently consensus-oriented and has a record of working collaboratively to actually achieve things, and someone who is running on a policy of obstruction, that we promote the former and try to defeat the latter.”

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