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Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon helps No Labels group eyeing a third-party presidential ticket

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, center, reacts while speaking with Judge Michael Stelzer, of the 22nd Circuit Court, left, after Gabe Gore was sworn in as the next St. Louis Circuit Attorney on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, center, speaks with Judge Michael Stelzer of the 22nd Circuit Court in May at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was having a busy political retirement as a partner with the Dowd Bennett law firm — and hiking trails around the world — when he chose to immerse himself in the hornet’s nest that is presidential politics by becoming a key figure in a national group mulling whether to field a third-party presidential ticket.

“It deeply, deeply troubled me that we were in a situation where you had folks working against the public’s ability to get things on the ballot,” Nixon said. “That has been vital. It’s a pillar of democracy.”

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon explains why he's joining No Labels
Nixon is pushing back against primarily Democratic efforts to kick a third party presidential ticket off of 2024 ballots.

Nixon, who is not being paid for his role with the group called No Labels, will help push back against primarily Democratic efforts to prevent a “unity presidential ticket” from making the ballot in certain states. While No Labels hasn’t committed to actually fielding a bipartisan presidential ticket, the prospect of a third candidate in next year’s election is raising alarms among some Democrats.

One of the biggest detractors of No Labels is also a highly visible Missouri political figure: former U.S. House Majority Leader and Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt. Gephardt is part of a group known as Citizens to Save Our Republic that is fighting No Labels’ efforts. The group argues that propelling a third-party candidacy in a race that includes President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump could backfire.

“Our view is that in these difficult times, No Labels should not be doing this,” Gephardt said.

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks to reporters following the end of the legislative session in 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

A battle over the ballot

No Labels is an organization of largely centrist political figures who are pushing back against what they contend is extremism in both political parties.

Besides Nixon, prominent members of the group include former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin spoke at a No Labels function recently, spurring speculation that he may be a part of a ticket with a Republican like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

For Nixon, joining No Labels is not about distaste for Biden, but rather what he sees as an unfair effort to deprive a possible ticket from the ballot.

“I think the key to a successful democracy from elected officials is not the ability to agree, but to disagree,” Nixon said. “And these days for a myriad of reasons — the hyper partisanship, the resources that attack people for taking positions — we’re not getting action from our government, especially in D.C., that reflects the needs and the issues of our country.”

Arizona Democrats have sought to force No Labels to disclose its donors or lose its status as a political party. Nixon and other No Labels backers have said the group is not a political party, so it is not held to the same campaign finance rules as the Republican or Democratic parties.

And Hogan and others say the efforts to keep No Labels off the ballot are undemocratic and are depriving voters of another option next year.

“Even if you’re not in agreement with the mission of No Labels, you have to be in agreement with fundamental rights that people have,” Hogan said at a town hall this week with Nixon. “When we’re talking about the hypocrisy of people talking out of both sides of their mouths and attacking a nonpartisan citizens group that’s just trying to unite people.”

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt addresses participants in during the Clinton Global Initiative University on the campus of Washington University.
Joe Angeles | WUSTL photos | 2013
Former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, shown at an event at Washington University in 2013, is pushing back against No Labels' efforts to help a presidential ticket.

A ‘dangerous’ gambit

Gephardt stressed that he generally agrees with the concept of No Labels and that he usually wouldn’t be up in arms over a third party or independent candidacy.

But he said his group’s polling shows that a third ticket in a race with Biden and Trump could allow the former GOP chief executive to return to the White House. Gephardt said that’s unacceptable, especially after Trump falsely claimed he won the 2020 election and egged on what ended up being a violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.

“Donald Trump is still maintaining that the election was stolen,” Gephardt said. “Our view is that in these difficult times, No Labels should not be doing this. Because all the polling that we’re able to see — and we commissioned our own poll nationally and in seven swing states, indicates that if the two candidates are Biden and Trump and No Labels goes ahead with this — that it will elect Donald Trump. The math is quite simple to understand.”

Other polls, including one from Monmouth University, showed Biden still ahead of Trump if Manchin and Huntsman were running on an independent ticket. But Gephardt said if there is another option, people who detest both Biden and Trump will gravitate to what he sees as an “off-ramp.”

“And when people say to me: ‘Why can’t the Democrats get Biden out of the race? Then we won’t do this.’ Well, I ran for president twice. Nobody asked me to run for president. And nobody told me I couldn’t run for president. That’s not the way this works. Anybody can run for anything,” Gephardt said, referring to his unsuccessful 1988 and 2004 presidential campaigns. “But in this case, and it’s only about Trump, this is a dangerous, risky thing for them to do. And we’re hoping to be able to convince them not to do it.”

While a unity ticket may be appealing to Republicans like Hogan who refuse to support Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee, it’s less clear how many Democrats would vote for it — especially in a possible Biden-Trump rematch. Most polls show Democratic voters universally opposed to Trump returning to the White House even if they are not enamored with Biden serving a second term.

“There's a lot of voters that don't like Joe Biden, and they don't like Donald Trump, and they don't want to be faced with that choice again,” Gephardt said. “But I've learned a long time ago that in life, you sometimes don't get two good choices, or even one good choice. Sometimes you're faced with two choices you really don't like, but you have to make a choice.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Some Democrats fear a No Labels unity ticket could help usher Donald Trump back into the presidency.

Third-party candidates have poor track record

Americans have rarely provided significant support for presidential candidates who are not members of the two dominant political parties.

The most successful third-party bid happened in 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket. While Roosevelt actually received more support than incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, the split among Republicans effectively handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson — the exact scenario that Gephardt and others are worried about.

No Labels has not committed to putting a presidential candidate forward. The organization has said it won’t go forward with a ticket if it doesn’t have a clear pathway to victory or if the Democratic and Republican candidates aren’t universally loathed among voters.

Nixon, though, said what he sees as corrosive political discourse could provide an opening to a presidential ticket that emphasizes dialogue and compromise.

“I'm not saying that this is … ‘oh, my gosh, the worst time Americans ever had,’” Nixon said. “But I do think politically we are extremely gummed up.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.