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No Labels organization works to place country over party — but what could that mean for 2024?

Where might politics be a headed? No Labels group hopes it’s toward the middle
Kevin Woster
Where might politics be a headed? No Labels group hopes it’s toward the middle

Prior to the recent Black Hills Forum and Press Club, I’d never heard of No Labels.

Or, wait, at my age it would be safer to say that I couldn’t recall ever hearing of No Labels. It’s possible I did and forgot it.

Either way, I now know more than I thought I did about the group, thanks to Tom Katus, Steve Allender and the press club.

Katus raised the No Labels issue at the last meeting of the press club here in Rapid City, during an audience Q & A with Allender, who will retire in June after eight years as mayor of Rapid City.

I’ll resume consideration of Allender and the No Labels movement in just a minute. First, though, a bit about political labels and Katus. They’re kind of interesting. To me, at least.

Katus is a Democrat and a former state senator who represented District 32 in Rapid City for a single two-year term back in 2007 and 2008. Give him credit, a win for a Democrat in Rapid City has become a rare thing, even in the lighter-shade-of-red District 32 where I live.

And the win by Katus in 2006 was made even more unusual by the fact that he was endorsed by the sitting Republican senator from District 32, Stan Adelstein.

Say what? Yeah, here’s what:

It was a complicated scenario. Adelstein, a conservative Republican on tax and business matters but a liberal member of the party on social issues, served two terms in the state House of Representatives before running for the Senate in 2004.

Adelstein was challenged that year in the GOP primary by anti-abortion conservative Elli Schwiesow. It was a bit of a fuss, that primary, with a sharp divide between the candidates on social issues, particularly abortion.

Adelstein beat Schwiesow by 174 votes, after spending $110,000 to her $31,000 in the primary, which was no small chunk of change for either candidate. As you would expect, Adelstein then beat Democrat Jim Ackerman in November.

Back for another run in 2006

But Schwiesow wasn’t finished. The cookie-baking conservative (she baked them and handed them out during her campaign) challenged Adelstein again in the 2006 GOP primary, this time winning by 122 votes. Adelstein again topped $100,00 in primary spending, and Schwiesow topped $50,000.

From there things got even more complicated, and a little weird, too, especially if you’re into labels.

Adelstein was labeled a Republican In Name Only (RINO) by some conservative Republicans. He preferred “mainstream Republican” and actually formed a group of moderate Republicans called the South Dakota Mainstream Coalition. Adelstein and others in the group wanted to resist the hard-right party members pushing for power in the state GOP.

Whatever his label, Adelstein was courted by Democrats to switch party registrations and run as one of them in the 2006 general election, to keep his Senate seat. Katus was already his party’s nominee but offered to step aside if Adelstein would switch parties and run.

Adelstein toyed with the idea. He ruminated over it. You could say he agonized over it. He talked to a lot of people, including U.S. senators, former governors, current and former state legislators and ministers of multiple denominations. Eventually he decided to remain a Republican but endorse Katus and give him financial support.

Katus pledged to knock on 50 doors a night in District 32. And based on the number of times I saw him, I believe he did. With that expense in shoe leather and Adelstein’s support in other ways, Katus beat Schwiesow by 479 votes that November.

And that was that.

Ha! Just kidding. Of course it wasn’t.

Things took an oddly different turn in 2008. Katus ran for a second term. Who could blame him? He liked the Senate. He felt like his work there mattered. But the same went for Adelstein. So he ran for his old Senate seat, but without another primary challenge from Schwiesow. She skipped a third head-to-head with Adelstein and ran in the general election as an independent.

I can tell you, I didn’t see that one coming. Schwiesow had been serving as a county and state Republican official. Going independent seemed out of character. Way out.

Loving the life of a state senator

With plenty of money to spend and good name ID, Adelstein won the general election that fall. And, oh, how the man who loved to be called “senator” loved getting back to legislative work. He had the money to be anywhere he wanted to be in January and February and March. And he wanted to be in Pierre.

Adelstein ran unopposed in 2010 and 2012 and was finishing the first year of his fourth state Senate term in December of 2019 when he retired because of health problems.

They were serious, those health problems, and his recovery was long and difficult. But while we’re talking about labels, let’s call Adelstein — a U.S. Army veteran — an old solider who kept on marching, even if slowly.

Now, at 91, Adelstein is still around, following the issues and making political contributions to candidates who share his values. Kristi Noem isn’t one of them, by the way. But that’s another story, and a pretty good one.

As for Katus, after losing the Senate race in 2008, he ran for state treasurer in 2010. He lost to Republican Rich Sattgast.

Katus made peace with both losses, which seems to be in his nature. Peacemaker is a label he would wear proudly, and with some justification. In the early 1960s, left South Dakota Mines after a couple of years of engineering study to serve in the newly formed Peace Corps. He volunteered to work as a road surveyor in Tanganyika, which is now part of Tanzania.

After his time in Africa, Katus helped train other Peace Corps volunteers for service there. And he continues to advocate for the organization founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and first led and shaped in enduring ways by his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver.

Behind him 1,000 percent — or not

Shriver, of course, had to wear the label “loser” after he joined the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in the summer of 1972. Shriver filled in as McGovern’s running mate after it was revealed that Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy and was taking an anti-psychotic medication, without initially telling McGovern.

When the story broke, McGovern proclaimed that he would stand by Eagleton “one thousand percent,” a political promise that lives in history, and comedy routines. As his approval rating dropped, McGovern finally let Eagleton go, just 18 days after he was chosen his party’s vice-presidential nominee.

McGovern’s polling numbers fell farther. And he and Shriver went on to suffer a near-total wipe out in the Electoral College and the most lopsided popular-vote total in history to. But the big winners in that race would be bigger losers within a couple of years, as both Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew left office in disgrace.

Who was the real “loser” in all that?

Labels. They can be tricky.

Allender’s label as “mayor” will soon be changed to “retired.” He seems to be done with politics, at least the kind of politics that involves campaigning for an elected office. At 61, he won’t completely rule out another run. But when I brought up the state Legislature in a conversation after the press club, he shrugged without enthusiasm.

Right now he seems tired of it all. But he does have a bit of a connection with politics through the No Labels organization, which is about politics and, as the group insists on its website, seeking “common-sense solutions, not partisan politics.”

The website continues: “We are the great American majority who demands cooperation, respect and problem solving from our leaders– not division for the sake of scoring political points. We declare our freedom from the tired extremes that are ruining our politics and our country.”

And there’s this from No Labels: “It takes courage to reach out. Backbone to be truly open to discussion. Compassion to see the good in the other side. Enlightenment to understand that all our elected leaders should be working for all the people.”

Working the puzzle of inspiring political centrists

That all sounds wonderful. And I can see why it would appeal to Allender. He said he is involved with the group because “it’s about putting America before party politics.”

Allender said No Labels is “not necessarily conservative or liberal. It’s middle of the road, and wanting to support candidates in the middle, not so much on the fringes.”

As a self-proclaimed centrist, I’m inclined toward the middle of the road, which is where I think the majority of Americans tend to live their lives. Quietly, mostly, and without rancor and hate. But they aren’t the ones driving politics today. Nor are they the ones most likely to turn out in high numbers to vote, donate heavily to campaigns, show up at public meetings to testify and stand in the cold or heat to protest.

The so-far-unsolved puzzle is how to inspire a large body of centrists to get involved and then to unify them behind candidates.

Allender said No Labels “describes itself as being an insurance policy for the upcoming presidential race, in the event that an extreme conservative and an extreme liberal are running for office.”

Katus said he raised the No Labels question at the press club after watching former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan talk about No Labels on the PBS show Firing Line with Margaret Hoover. In case you didn’t know, Hoover is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover, our 31st president.

Hoover and the Great Depression label

Herbert Hoover, of course, wears the historical label as the president who presided over the Great Depression. That’s probably unfair. He didn’t cause or anticipate the stock-market crash in the first year of his term. And he had distinguished himself in service to previous administrations, doing good work in providing food to starving populations in Europe after World War I and serving in that and other capacities under presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge.

But the crash came. And Hoover didn’t inspire or elevate with the way he handled it. More than that, he oversaw the forced migration back to Mexico of hundreds of thousands of people, in a program that sought to place the blame on migrants for the nation’s economic woes. The biases that drove that odious action still live among some in America today.

What label should we put on that? Maybe “shameful.”

Katus said Hogan told Margaret Hoover that No Labels would put “$50 million behind a sane candidate. And if no sane candidate ran, they might run themselves.”

Then Katus asked Allender: “Is this the start of a third party?”

Allender said he doesn’t think No Labels is the start of a third party, at least not yet. But he also said “it could be.” He said No Labels has raised about $80 million and has done research and polling that indicate that “there is a path to victory in a presidential election by a moderate candidate.”

I believe Allender, who I’d call a reasonable moderate, is sincere and well intended in his involvement with No Labels. And I have no doubt that the No Labels folks think there is a path to victory for a moderate. I believe that, too.

Third-party candidates spoilers not winners

But here’s the catch: There isn’t such a path if that moderate is a third-party candidate. And there won’t be anytime soon. In the political system as it exists today in the United States, third-party candidates have spoiler potential only in presidential races.

They don’t win. They can’t win. And they haven’t been able to win for a long, long time.

Even former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t manage it. After serving most of two terms as president, he ran as a third-party (Progressive) candidate in 1912 after losing the Republican presidential primary to incumbent President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt got 27.4 percent of the vote compared to 23.2 percent for Taft. But Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with 41.8 percent.

Roosevelt also got 88 Electoral College votes. You might consider that impressive, except that it takes 270 to win. Second best in Electoral College Votes by a third-party presidential candidate was George Wallace with 46 in 1968.

And how about John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996? They didn’t get a single Electoral College Vote between them.

If No Labels were to run a moderate candidate like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (himself 75) or former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (81), or a younger version of either, who would be hurt in the general election? Not Donald Trump.

I understand why Allender is interested in No Labels. He wants a change. Many of us do. Most of us, probably. We’d like people to actually put their country and their state ahead of their party. Unfortunately, such people are rare. It takes courage and smarts and money and support for them to succeed.

And still, they never have. Not in a presidential race.

Allender said polling by No Labels has been done in states that have selected moderate candidates over extreme candidates.

“Of course South Dakota is not one of them,” he said. “But they’re not going to cry over three (electoral) votes anyway.

I don’t know what No Labels will or won’t cry over. But I’ll tell you what I will cry over: Donald Trump winning another four years in the White House.

And I fear that if No Labels brings an alternative candidate to the 2024 presidential race, it will all but guarantee that Donald Trump will be elected, again.

So much for moderation and sanity.

Trump’s base is rock solid. As he himself said during the 2016 campaign: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

It is, like, incredible. And it’s, like, really scary, too. How many insurrections can this nation survive? How many attacks on facts and truth, science and public education, medical professionals and research and development can this nation endure?

Of course, Trump lost some supporters with his behavior during his four years as president. But he also picked up some supporters — a lot of supporters. His 74.2 million vote total in the 2020 election was well above the 63 million he got in 2016 and behind only Biden’s 2020 total of 81.3 million as the most votes for a presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Biden vs. Trump again? Very possible

Trump lost some support after he refused to take part in the peaceful transfer of power and his lies about 2020 election inspired a Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionist supporters. You might think he’d lose lots of support after that, maybe even most of his support. Not a chance, not for Trump.

Surveys show that he remains well liked by most Republicans and strongly supported by his base. Amazing. Or as he himself says, like, incredible.

Biden’s base isn’t nearly so solid. And while his win in 2020 was plenty wide in the popular vote, it was narrow in the Electoral College. And the Electoral College is where Republicans have the power they don’t have in the popular vote or in overall party registrations across the nation.

While he has swung since the 2020 campaign began, Biden has a long history as a moderate Democrat inclined toward compromise. That leaves him open to criticism from the progressive wing of his party for not leaning far enough their way. Meanwhile, he still gets slammed by Republicans who claim he is too liberal, socialistic and even — Are you ready for a good laugh? — even communist.

Plus, there’s the age thing to worry about. Many in his own party think Biden (age 80) is too old to run again. That’s especially true among Democrats who are younger than I am. Most a lot younger. Yet Biden critics have failed to present an alternative candidate likely to win in 2024.

And while many Republicans talk a good game about moving on from Trump (himself 76), very few in positions of authority follow it with any meaningful action. And very few in the party are willing to confront him or the dangerous parts of his base publicly. They just don’t want to take the risk, politically or personally.

So, unless Trump decides to pull out of the race or somehow ends up in jail, both of which seem unlikely, he’ll have a strong base from which to campaign. And he’ll have plenty of money, including millions raised in the fundraising surge since he was indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan.

Biden’s base will be less stable and less fervent. And Biden has certainly had some deflating missteps along with plain old bad luck in his first term, just as he has had some inspired successes. If it comes down to Trump and Biden in 2024, as seems likely, I’d still expect Biden to beat Trump. Again.

Unless, of course, there’s a well-financed alternative candidate in the race who pulls moderate votes away from Biden. In which case, I think Trump will win.

And that would inspire me to come up with some other labels — none of them complimentary — for the No Labels organization.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.