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Why No Labels is trying to take out moderate Democrat Mark Udall

No Labels has backed Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who is now running for Senate.
No Labels has backed Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who is now running for Senate.
Brent Lewis / Denver Post / Getty

No Labels describes itself as a "national movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving." Being nonpartisan is its whole purpose. But on Monday, RealClearPolitics' Adam O'Neal reported that the group would jump into one of the most important Senate races in the country — and back the Republican candidate.

Their preferred candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), has recently tried to moderate a long record of conservatism on several issues. But the incumbent Democrat, Mark Udall, is clearly no blind partisan, as his positions on budget issues and civil liberties make clear. So why does No Labels want him gone?

When I asked co-founder Bill Galston, he said the problem was simply that Udall's office refused to work with No Labels — and that "we're still scratching our heads about why that is." But the decision comes after months of tensions between No Labels and Senate Democrats — tensions that suggest the group might have an easier time pushing its agenda in a Republican-controlled Senate.

The No Labels agenda

No Labels, March 2011 rally

A March 2011 No Labels rally. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

No Labels was founded in 2010 by a who's who of connected Washington politicians, wonks, and operatives affiliated with both major parties. The group diagnosed partisanship as Washington's main problem. It said it would focus on building civility and common ground between the parties, and backed a series of Congressional reforms with those goals in mind. "What we're trying to do is meet the public demand for a more consensus-building style of politics," says Galston, who is also a Brookings Institution fellow.

Lately, No Labels has been getting more specific on policy, promoting a four-point "national strategic agenda" that includes reforming entitlements, balancing the federal budget, boosting job creation, and achieving energy security. The group is funded mainly by wealthy financiers with histories of bipartisan political giving, as revealed in a report by Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News. In a tax filing, No Labels disclosed raising $2.8 million between July 2012 and June 2013.

Initially, No Labels attracted many centrist Democrats, but few Republicans wanted to be affiliated with the group when the energy seemed on the side of the Tea Party. As the Congressional GOP became steadily more unpopular and confrontational over the next few years, though, more of its members became interested in appearing moderate.

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) was a prime example. In previous years, he had held very conservative positions on a variety of issues. But in July 2013, he joined more than 70 other members of Congress in signing on to a set of No Labels bills to cut waste and inefficiency in government — becoming part of the "No Labels Problem Solvers Coalition."

The seal of approval

No Labels problem solver button

(MCT / Tribune News Service / Getty)

When Gardner joined the No Labels coalition, he had already announced that he wouldn't challenge Udall this cycle. But several months later, in February 2014, Gardner changed his mind, and opted for a run. His recruitment instantly made Colorado a top-tier Senate pickup opportunity for the GOP, since several polls showed Udall at risk.

But Gardner's history of very conservative positions, particularly on reproductive issues, looked problematic. For instance, he had backed a controversial federal "personhood" bill that would have potentially outlawed some forms of contraception. The Udall campaign quickly focused on portraying Gardner as too extreme and conservative for Colorado — messaging that had helped Udall's colleague, Michael Bennet, beat back Tea Party challenger Ken Buck in 2010. Needing to convince voters of his moderation, Gardner proceeded to walk back several of his past positions, as this piece by Politico's Manu Raju documents.

On April 28, No Labels gave this makeover attempt some help by announcing it was giving Gardner its "Problem Solver Seal of Approval." In a press release, the group praised Gardner's support for "No Budget, No Pay" (which was backed by nearly all House Republicans, and which President Obama eventually signed into law) and a bill to improve energy efficiency in federal buildings.

Gardner's campaign trumpeted this as an "endorsement," but No Labels said it was only an "implied endorsement" — one that Udall, too could earn, if he worked with the group. "We'd be happy to have Senator Udall sign on, and glad to give him a Seal of Approval as well," Mark McKinnon, a one-time consultant for George W. Bush now advising No Labels, said at the time. He added: "We asked his office a number of times over the last year."

A feud with Senate Democrats

Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty)

But according to a July report by Meredith Shiner, Senate Democrats didn't buy No Labels' explanations. Several senators who were affiliated with No Labels threatened to quit over the "seal of approval" for Gardner, and the group's relationship with Senate Democratic leaders became particularly "hostile," Shiner wrote.

"Surprise to say, Senator Reid wasn't thrilled that we decided to give our seal of approval to Cory Gardner," Galston says. "And he let a number of people know that he wasn't pleased. And it was an interesting period."

Intriguingly, Shiner obtained an internal document given out at No Labels' board meeting that went even further. It appeared to argue that a Republican Senate takeover would be good for the group.  "We have already begun back door conversations with Senate leaders to discuss this increasingly likely scenario," the memo says. "No Labels sees an opportunity to bridge the gap between Congress and the White House." (No Labels responded to Shiner's piece by saying the memo was just strategizing for one possible outcome.)

From an implied endorsement, to getting out the vote

Mark Udall

Mark Udall, at an October 21, 2014 rally. (Doug Pensinger / Getty)

This week, though, No Labels dropped the "implied" from their endorsement of Gardner by committing resources to an actual get out the vote effort for him. The only other politician the group is doing that for is Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), who's in a much less consequential House race. "Bera is pretty close to being one of our charter members," Galston says. "We feel a real closeness there."

But Udall remains a strange target for the group. He's known as a moderate on the fiscal issues the group cares about, and even supports a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. He also has a record of criticizing the Obama administration on civil liberties, a bit of heterodoxy that doesn't skew obviously left or right.

Galston put the blame on Udall, saying, "We've been in dialogue with Senator Udall and his office for quite some time now. And we would have been happy, indeed, thrilled, if he had agreed to sign on." He pointed to the Iowa Senate race, where both Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst sought, and were granted, the No Labels seal of approval. "Ideally, we would have had two No Labels seal recipients running against each other in Colorado too. It didn't work out that way, and since it didn't work out that way, the decision was made to help out on the ground a little bit."

However, Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Mark Begich (D-AK) also joined the "No Labels Problem Solvers Coalition," while their opponents did not, and these Senate Democrats aren't getting a No Labels-sponsored turnout operation. Galston said he wasn't sure why No Labels had opted against helping them, but emphasized, "We are a small group with a limited bandwidth."

The practical significance of No Labels' move shouldn't be exaggerated — busing in some volunteers to Colorado for a few days is highly unlikely to swing an election. Yet symbolically, No Labels is making clear that it no longer cares about maintaining good relations with Reid or Senate Democrats (who are now pressuring Senator Joe Manchin to end his affiliation with the group). It's also sending a message to politicians: if you don't work with us, we could make you regret it.

Current polls suggest a Gardner win — and a GOP Senate takeover — are likely. If they're right, we'll get the chance to see if a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Cory Gardner would, in fact, usher in a new era of problem-solving in Washington — or whether the problems No Labels says it hates will just keep getting worse.

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