Who are ‘No Labels’ donors? Democratic groups file complaints in an attempt to find out

Joe LiebermanDan WebbBenjamin F. Chavis
FILE – No Labels leadership and guests from left, Dan Webb, National Co-Chair Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, and founding Chairman and former Senator Joe Lieberman, speak about the 2024 election at National Press Club, in Washington, Jan. 18, 2024. Two Democratic-aligned groups this week have filed campaign finance complaints against No Labels. They are hoping to crimp the centrist group’s pipeline of campaign cash and force it to follow the same rules as formal political parties. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

For months, the centrist group No Labels has stockpiled cash and diligently worked to secure ballot access for a potential third-party presidential bid, striking fear among allies of President Joe Biden that the effort could siphon away votes and hand the White House to Donald Trump.

Now, with a rematch between Biden and Trump looking likely, two Democratic-aligned groups this week filed campaign finance complaints, hoping to crimp No Labels' pipeline of campaign cash and force the group to follow the same rules as formal political parties.

The group Accountable.US filed its complaint in Colorado, where No Labels has qualified for party status, arguing that the group has failed to file quarterly campaign finance reports, as required under state law. It aims to force No Labels to reveal who its donors are.

Colorado includes an exemption for groups that are also registered with the FEC. But the complaint argues that No Labels' efforts to “hide behind" its national organization "would create a dangerous gap in Colorado’s campaign finance law, and allow national groups to funnel dark money into Colorado’s elections via state-level organizations.”

The complaints, another was filed with the FEC by the group End Citizens United, are part of a broader Democratic effort to ramp up legal scrutiny and elicit public scorn for No Labels as it teases a possible White House run by an as-of-yet unannounced ticket that many Democrats worry will play electoral spoiler.

“We are continuing to work every single avenue with our partners to hold (No Labels) accountable legally, to expose them publicly, and to make sure they are playing by the same rules as everyone else,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United. “I don’t think it's any secret that No Labels is a threat to our democracy if they run a third-party (candidate). That’s going to siphon off votes from President Biden and reelect Donald Trump."

In a statement, No Labels disputed any suggestion that the group had done anything improper and dismissed the complaints as part of a “coordinated conspiracy to subvert No Labels’ ballot access and limit Americans' choices.”

No Labels regularly promotes itself as a “common sense” centrist organization. However, the group has pushed policy ideas often favored by conservatives such as requiring immigrants learn English, reducing federal regulation and shifting federal programs to the states. Various other proposals involve expanding presidential power and reducing the national debt.

But while the group has established No Labels political parties in numerous states, at the national level it is actually registered as a nonprofit with the IRS. That has enabled No Labels to operate with limited transparency while accepting unlimited sums from an anonymous set of donors — a source of financing often referred to pejoratively as “dark money.”

The group also has a history in Colorado. The group created a minor controversy during the 2022 midterms when it sent out emails inviting supporters to a private event at Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper’s house featuring Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. (The group would eventually host an on-line town hall with Manchin.) No Labels also invited GOP U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea — who was running against Hickenlooper’s fellow Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet — to the event, according to the O’Dea campaign. The group also supported former Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in 2014.

If the Democrat-aligned groups are successful, No Labels would not only be compelled to register as a formal political party with the Federal Election Commission, but it would also have its tax-exempt status revoked, be forced to abide by the same donation amount limits as other political parties and be required to reveal its big-money donors.

That's a big if.

Both the FEC and the IRS have been hesitant in recent years to police groups that push the boundaries of campaign finance law. The FEC board, which is split evenly between those aligned with Democrats and those aligned with Republicans, frequently deadlocks. The IRS, meanwhile, has largely shrunk from enforcement ever since attempts to crack down on tea party groups during Barack Obama's presidency drew massive backlash.

Still, campaign finance experts say many of the legal arguments made by the Democratic groups are solid.

Under a widely held interpretation of IRS rules, political nonprofit groups are limited to making political activity 50% of their activity. End Citizens United argues in its complaint that No Labels appears to primarily be engaged in political work “to oppose the candidacies of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.” It also argues that No Labels runs afoul of a separate provision against the activities of the group primarily benefiting a private party — in this case, No Labels. End Citizens United also plans to forward the complaint to authorities in states where No Labels operates, hoping that local officials may consider pursuing the matter.

The group's complaint filed with the FEC argues that No Labels' level of spending and advocacy against the election of Biden and Trump triggers requirements in federal campaign finance law that demand it to register as a political party.

“It sounds like they have a strong argument. There’s no doubt that, under any normal situation, what No Labels is doing makes them a political party,” said Adav Noti, the executive director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington and a former FEC attorney.

No Labels chief strategist Ryan Clancy disputed the suggestion that the group had run afoul of campaign finance law. He pointed to a federal case called Unity08 v. FEC, which he said established a precedent sanctioning its approach.

Clancy said No Labels is not required to register as a political committee “so long as we are not actively supporting any specific candidate."

But Noti, who was one of the attorneys who argued the case, said there are key differences between the 2010 case and what No Labels is doing now, characterizing the current argument as a bit “too cute.” In this instance, while No Labels may not be advocating for a specific candidate, they are advocating against both Biden and Trump, who are.

“I think we're past the too cute phase, and now the activity is openly illegal, and they are just trying to run out the clock before enforcement can kick in,” Noti said.

Brian Slodysko and Jonathan J. Cooper of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Alejandro A. Alonso Galva of CPR News contributed to this story.