The bipartisan political group No Labels is stepping up a well-funded effort to field a “unity ticket” for the 2024 presidential race, prompting fierce resistance from even some of its closest allies who fear handing the White House back to Donald J. Trump.
At the top of the list of potential candidates is Senator Joe Manchin III, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who has been a headache to his party and could bleed support from President Biden in areas crucial to his re-election.
The centrist group’s leadership was in New York this week raising part of the money — around $70 million — that it says it needs to help with nationwide ballot access efforts.
“The determination to nominate a ticket” will be made shortly after the primaries next year on what is known as Super Tuesday, March 5, said Nancy Jacobson, the co-founder and leader of No Labels. A national convention has been set for April 14-15 in Dallas, where a Democrat-Republican ticket would be set to take on the two major-party nominees. (Mr. Biden is facing two long-shot challengers, and Mr. Trump is the Republican front-runner.)
Other potential No Labels candidates being floated include Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, and former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, who has said he would not run for the G.O.P. nomination and is the national co-chairman of the group. But Mr. Manchin has received most notice recently after speaking on a conference call last month with donors.
“We’re not looking to pick the ticket right now,” former Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and longtime associate of the group, cautioned in an interview on Wednesday as he prepared to meet with donors and leaders in New York. “Our focus is getting on the ballot.”
The drive has already secured ballot spots in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon and is now targeting Florida, Nevada and North Carolina. But gaining ballot access nationwide is a challenging and expensive effort, and the group still has a long way to go.
Ms. Jacobson called the project “an insurance policy in the event both major parties put forth presidential candidates the vast majority of Americans don’t support.”
“We’re well aware any independent ticket faces a steep climb and if our rigorously gathered data and polling suggests an independent unity ticket can’t win, we will not nominate a ticket,” she said.
Caveats aside, the effort is causing deep tensions with the group’s ideological allies, congressional partners and Democratic Party officials who are scrambling to stop it. Third-party candidates siphoned enough votes to arguably cost Democrats elections in 2000 (Al Gore) and 2016 (Hillary Clinton). Republicans say the same thing about Ross Perot’s role in blocking George H.W. Bush’s re-election in 1992.
“If No Labels runs a Joe Manchin against Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think it will be a historic disaster,” said Representative Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat and, until now, a strong supporter of the organization. “And I speak for just about every moderate Democrat and frankly most of my moderate Republican friends.”
People close to Mr. Manchin have their doubts he would join a No Labels ticket. He must decide by January whether to run for re-election in his firmly Republican state. But he does see an avenue to return to the Senate.
The state’s popular Democrat-turned-Republican governor, Jim Justice, is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Mr. Manchin, but so is West Virginia’s most Trump-aligned House member, Alex Mooney, who has the backing of the deep-pocketed political action committee Club for Growth.
If Mr. Mooney can knock out Mr. Justice, or damage him badly by bringing up the governor’s centrist record and days as a Democrat, Mr. Manchin sees a path to re-election, and no real prospect of actually winning the presidency on the No Labels ticket.
But he is keeping his options open, at least as he raises money under the No Labels auspices.
“Let’s try to make people come back together for the sake of the country, not just for the sake of the party,” Mr. Manchin told the group’s donors on a recent conference call leaked to the news site Puck this month.
Opponents are mobilizing to stop No Labels. Maine’s secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, sent a cease-and-desist letter this month to the group’s director of ballot access, accusing the organization of misrepresenting its intentions as it presses for signatures to get on the state’s presidential ballot.
The Arizona Democratic Party sued this spring to get No Labels off the state’s ballot, accusing it of “engaging in a shadowy strategy to gain ballot access — when in reality they are not a political party.”
One of No Labels’ founders, William Galston, a former policy aide to President Bill Clinton, publicly resigned from his own organization over the push. In an interview, he pointed to polling saying that voters who dislike both Mr. Trump and President Biden — “double haters” — say overwhelmingly they would vote for Mr. Biden in the end. Given an alternative, that might not be the case.
And Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a centrist coalition aligned with No Labels that actually does No Labels’ legislative work, are in open revolt.
“I can think of nothing worse than another Trump presidency and no better way of helping him than running a third-party candidate,” said Representative Brad Schneider, Democrat of Illinois.
No Labels has long had its detractors, variously accused of ineffectuality, fronting for Republicans and existing mainly to raise large amounts of money from wealthy corporate donors, many of whom give primarily to Republicans.
But the grumbling criticism took on a more urgent tone when Puck posted a partial transcript of a leaked conference call that No Labels held with its funders. On it, Ryan Clancy, the group’s chief strategist, said ballot organizers were at “600,000 signatures and counting,” and nearing slots on the ballot in “roughly 20 states,” with their eyes on all 50.
Mr. Manchin joined the call as the closer: “The hope is to keep the country that we have, and you cannot do that by forcing the extreme sides on both parties,” he said.
Mr. Manchin’s political appeal beyond West Virginia is questionable. The loudest discontent among Democrats with Mr. Biden has come from young voters, many of whom are animated by the issue of climate change, and they are not aligned with the coal-state Democrat on that.
Mr. Manchin is not a climate denier in the traditional sense. He has repeatedly referred to the “climate crisis” caused by human activities.
Yet Mr. Manchin, whose state produces some of the highest levels of coal and natural gas nationally and who has earned millions from his family’s coal business, has long fought policies that would punish companies for not shifting more quickly to clean energy and has accused Mr. Biden of promoting a “radical climate agenda.”
But Democrats worry. The southwestern suburbs of Pittsburgh abut West Virginia, and it would not take many Democrats bolting to Mr. Manchin to hand Pennsylvania to Mr. Trump, they warn.
Ms. Jacobson, on the leaked conference call, said No Labels had been “Pearl Harbored” by a March memo from the Democratic centrist group Third Way. The memo was bluntly titled: “A Plan That Will Re-elect Trump.”
“It wasn’t exactly a sneak attack,” Third Way’s longtime leader, Matt Bennett, countered in an interview. “We are enormously alarmed.”
Lisa Friedman contributed reporting from Washington.