Group Launches Effort to Protect Moderate Candidates From Primary Challenges

December 4, 2016


No Labels hopes to raise $50 million to back ‘problem solvers’ from both parties.

A group called No Labels is launching a coalition of super PACs that aims to raise $50 million to support centrist lawmakers in Congress by promising to protect them financially in the 2018 elections.

In recent years, as the tea party and progressive movements have gained steam in their respective parties, lawmakers have faced increasing competition from candidates within their own parties. For members of the House, who are up for re-election every two years, the threat is particularly dire.

 Led by founder Nancy Jacobson, No Labels’ effort has already notched the support of four billionaires—investor Nelson Peltz, hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon, investor Howard Marks and former hedge-fund manager John Arnold—as well as six other donors from both parties. On Monday, 200 business leaders and another 40 members of Congress are convening in Washington to discuss the effort.

The initiative, organizers say, isn’t partisan, but rather aimed at encouraging lawmakers to focus on areas of consensus rather than of difference. The goal, said No Labels spokesman Ryan Clancy, is to “send a signal to members that there is a reward for governing like a problem-solver.”

The group hopes that by rewarding centrist lawmakers who don’t always vote with their parties, they will be more willing to take risks. “These members live in mortal fear of getting primaried if they cross their base or party leadership,” Mr. Bacon said in an interview. “So no one takes a risk. Nothing gets done.”

The super PACs will focus on boosting turnout of moderate voters in primaries, rather than general-election battles. Most congressional races are decided in primary elections, which tend to draw voters in the extremes of both parties, rather than those in the middle.

During the 2016 elections, No Labels tested its theory in two House races. In Kansas and Florida, the group spent a total of $1 million backing a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, in their primary battles. The funds were spent on voter-outreach technology and mailers aimed at boosting turnout among moderate voters. In both races, turnout rose—and No Labels’ preferred candidates won.

In 2018, the coalition of super PACs will likely target more than two dozen races, Mr. Peltz said in an interview.

“There has been no reward at the ballot box for being a problem solver, and there’s been no penalty for being an obstructionist,” said Mr. Peltz, the chief executive of Trian Fund Management LP.

No Labels organizers say the new super PAC initiative isn’t tied to Republican Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in November, noting that planning began in the spring.

Ultimately, No Labels’ effort is aimed at ensuring that centrist lawmakers, many of whom have fled or been ousted from Congress in recent years, remain in the game.

“If you just walk away from the playing field,” Mr. Clancy said, “you cede it to the crazy people.”