Biden allies plot to thwart third party bids that threaten his reelection

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - CHEYENNE (Wyoming), Jan 18 — American Bridge is the Democratic Party’s primary opposition research organisation, spending tens of millions of dollars to track Republican rivals and produce attack ads.

But in 2024, the deep-pocketed ally of President Joe Biden is adding a new role that could help shape the November 5 presidential election: third-party suppressor.

Worried that third-party bids from a centrist group called No Labels and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. could siphon off votes from Biden in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, American Bridge has hired prominent election attorney Marc Elias to help thwart these outsider bids, among other things.

A central tactic employed: flagging technical issues or starting a legal challenge as third-party candidates navigate a patchwork of laws of get on state ballots.

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“We’re keeping an eye out to make sure they’re dotting all their i’s and crossing their t’s, and we are not ruling out legal action with our attorneys if we identify a problem - and that applies for all third party threats to President Biden,” Pat Denis, president of the American Bridge group, said in a statement to Reuters.

Other Biden allies have also launched a multi-pronged assault to starve third party candidates of financial and political support. In addition to trying to keep them off state ballots, they say they are asking donors not to send them money and warning potential candidates to stay on the sidelines, according to interviews with groups involved in the efforts.

US demand for a third party presidential candidate has reached record highs amid deep voter dissatisfaction with 81-year-old Biden and his likely Republican rival Donald . A Reuters/Ipsos poll in December showed six in 10 respondents were unhappy with the two-party system and want a third choice.

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Polls show voters have deep concerns about Biden’s age and the strength of the economy as well as Trump’s threats to upend democracy.

No Labels and Kennedy, two challengers who are not connected to each other, have amassed among the most well-funded and well-organized outsider bids in modern political history to test the major party firewall, political experts say.

No Labels, which has yet to name a candidate, has already raised more than US$60 million and has qualified in 14 states, including Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina - states that are likely help decide the election. It’s on the ground or has submitted petitions in at least 13 more and plans to spend about half of its cash on securing ballot access across all 50 states.

“We are in a super unique time where voters from New York to Wyoming are just fed up beyond belief with their options,” Jane Hall, who worked in former President Bill Clinton’s administration and is the No Labels co-chair in Wyoming, said as she went door-to-door in the city of Cheyenne collecting signatures for the party.

Meanwhile, Kennedy and a Super PAC political organization supporting him plan to spend a combined US$30 million to get him on state ballots.

No third-party candidate has won a modern US presidential election, although some like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Ross Perot in 1992 have played outsized roles as spoilers, taking votes from major party candidates. Democrats fear their party may splinter this time with a centrist third-party bid, while Trump’s loyal base sticks with him.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll in December showed Trump’s lead widened to a 5-point advantage nationally when respondents were given an option to vote for Kennedy.

“They’re very unlikely to win...But there is a real chance, a substantial chance, that they will determine the winner in the fall, which is why Democrats are apoplectic about them,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said.

No good choices

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centre-left group Third Way, is among the more prominent voices helping Democrats block third-party candidates. The group has banded with progressive organization MoveOn and others to dissuade voters from having any association with No Labels.

“We’ve talked to donors, political insiders and potential candidates, and our message to everyone is the same: there is no chance these third party efforts are going to be successful, but they will help Donald Trump win and that’s a bad thing,” Bennett said.

Those efforts are bankrolled by more than US$1 million from Reid Hoffman, the billionaire Democratic megadonor, Bennett said.

Richard Gephardt, a former Democratic congressman, formed a Super PAC called “Citizens to Save Our Republic” to warn Americans against supporting third-party candidates. He has raised US$200,000 so far for an information campaign.

“Sometimes in life, you don’t get two good choices,” Gephardt said. “You don’t even get one good choice. You get two choices you really don’t like but you got to make a choice. And that’s what we’re trying to say to Americans. You may not like this choice, but don’t make a choice to put somebody back in office who tried to overthrow the federal government.”

Tony Lyons, the head of the pro-Kennedy Super PAC, said Americans should be “outraged” by the lengths Democrats have gone to prevent third-party bids.

“We live in a democracy, at least we are supposed to. How is it possible, even legal, to keep spending millions to keep a candidate off the ballot or tie them up in nonsense legal fights?” Lyons said.

‘Hazing ritual’

Unlike Republicans and Democrats who are automatically on the presidential ballots, outsider campaigns often face an uphill challenge just to get on the ballot.

They need to spend millions to hand collect hundreds of thousands of signatures from registered voters, line up officials called electors, convince voters to formally ditch their parties in some states and hold conventions in others.

“Some of these states haven’t changed their laws in 100 years, you know, and some have only have made them worse,” said Theresa Amato, former campaign manager for Ralph Nader, who ran for president in 2000 and 2004 but did not get on all 50 state ballots. “We really have to ask ourselves, why do we allow two parties to enforce a hazing ritual for all other competitors and political voices in the United States?”

Reuters last month joined No Labels canvassers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as they collected signatures in person. They spent two months collecting some 9,000 signatures - more than double the requirement to get on the ballot - figuring many would get tossed due to an unusual state law that purges voters from its rolls for not voting in the last election.

In Maine, voters are required to officially switch parties if they want to even just show support for a minor party petition. Some 800 people withdrew their support for No Labels after the secretary of state, a Democrat, took the unusual step of writing to voters informing them that they switched parties when they signed up to back No Labels’ bid to get on the ballot.

In Arizona, No Labels is in federal court to beat back efforts led by Biden supporters to force the group to disclose its donors, as some Democrats worry it is funded by conservative activists.

Barbara Wejnert, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, says most of the world’s democracies have adopted parliamentary-style governments that embrace multiple parties.

“The US is the most hostile democracy when it comes to third parties,” Wejnert said.

Voters want choice

Interviews with more than two dozen voters who signed the No Labels petitions to get on ballots in Wyoming and Maryland showed a strong appetite for a third-party bid, but also highlighted the challenges of actually winning an election.

Many voters themselves fear that supporting the effort will do little other than drain votes from Biden or Trump - a concern borne out by history.

Nader drained votes from Democrat Al Gore, helping hand the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush, while businessman Ross Perot had the same impact on the 1992 reelection campaign by Bush’s father, George HW Bush.

“I am not happy with both parties, but I would not vote for a third party if I thought it meant it would help Biden win, said Anthony Gabriel, a 42-year old registered Republican from Cheyenne who signed the petition. — Reuters

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