Scandal-scarred and censured former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was back in Congress in 2018— and on the wrong side of Señor Trumpanzee— when Joe Cunningham decided to challenge him. Trump endorsed Sanford’s extreme right MAGA freakshow primary opponent, Katie Arrington, and she beat him. Suddenly Cunningham struck gold. Instead of running against the controversial incumbent, he was running against a psychotic. Although she won all the rural counties, Cunningham swept Charleston by over 17,000 votes, enough to take the relatively moderate district, 145,455 (50.6%) to 141,473 (49.2%). It was a major upset, but Cunningham immediately joined the Blue Dogs and voted more frequently with the GOP than almost any other Democrat in Congress. His first vote in Congress was to oppose Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
His conservative voting record didn’t save him from defeat after one term when he faced a more mainstream conservative than Arrington— Nancy Mace (who painted him as a socialist anyway). She beat him 216,042 (50.6%) to 210,627 (49.3%), almost an exact flip from 2018.
Two years later he ran for governor against incumbent Henry McMaster. Although he managed to outraise McMaster by over a million dollars, all that money was wasted when the election results came in. The not especially popular McMaster beat him 988,501 (58.1%) to 692,691 (40.7%), although he managed to win Charleston. Now he’s the director of No Labels, an anti-progressive operation owned by Nancy Jacobson and Mark Penn and financed by Republican billionaires dedicated to defeating Democrats. Earlier in the week, Andrew Perez noted that Biden— once a Cunningham endorser— is worried that No Labels’ immense war-chest could throw the election to Trump. “Democratic operatives,” wrote Perez, “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… [T]he 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 No Labels’ anonymous donors.”
[After losing in 2022] 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.”
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 stymie 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.
So far, No Labels has secured ballot access in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon.
Arizona’s Secretary of State is suing to remove their ballot access— which they certainly plan to use to help Kyrsten Sinema— and Maine’s Secretary of State, Shenna Bellows is working to keep them off the Maine ballot. And speaking of Maine…and Democraps who undermine Democratic values, on Wednesday just two conservative Dems— Jared Golden of Maine and freshman Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington— voted with the GOP to repeal Biden's modest student debt relief program. In addition to blocking the cancellation of up to $20,000 in student debt per eligible borrower, what Golden and Perez were backing was the GOP plan to roll back "at least four months of paused payments and $5 billion per month in waived interest charges, requiring the U.S. Department of Education to send surprise loan bills to tens of millions of borrowers, even potentially impacting the 8th (and current) payment pause.” The American Federation of Teachers and the Student Borrower Protection Center say the measure would "reinstate the debt of more than 260,000 public service workers who have achieved [Public Service Loan Forgiveness] since September 2022, restoring a debt burden that amounts to more than $19 billion overall and more than $72,000 per person." Over 100,000 people in Golden’s district owe student debt money and nearly that many owe student debt money in Pérez’s district. She won by a hair because Democrats thought she was progressive (and because she was running against a MAGA psychopath):
Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez- 160,323 (50.4%)
Joe Kent- 157,690 (49.6%)
And Golden won with less than half the votes cast (48.5%) because there was an independent in the race and because Democrats believed in him. Let’s see if that happens again.