The Art of the Bipartisan Takedown

The political group No Labels considered launching a primary challenge against Nancy Pelosi—and attacking her during the midterms as a “bogeyman.”

Candidate Donald Trump addresses the No Labels Problem Solver Convention in Manchester, New Hampshire, in October 2015. In 2016, No Labels gave Trump its "problem solver’s award." (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Before saying that its opposition to Nancy Pelosi’s House speaker campaign had nothing to do with her record, the nonpartisan group No Labels was exploring a primary challenge to her back home in San Francisco.

And she wasn’t the only Democrat the centrist nonprofit wanted to go after.

No Labels bills itself as “a movement for the tens of millions of Americans who are fed up with the dysfunction and will no longer put up with a government that does not represent the interests of most Americans.” Among the group’s past co-chairs are the former Republican presidential candidate and current ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and the former Democratic and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who oversaw the presentation of No Labels’ “problem solver’s award” to Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries.

The nonprofit’s super PAC supports the Problem Solvers Caucus, which has 44  equally divided Democratic and Republican members in the House and purports to be working on real solutions to issues that divide Congress.

But over the past year, No Labels’  leaders considered primary challenges to at least three incumbent House Democrats—starting with Pelosi, in January 2017. They also discussed running a primary challenge to freshman Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat. He had been elected with No Labels’ support but had in early 2017 accepted a mostly honorific position as an assistant whip for the House Democrats.

Now Soto is one of the nine Democrats from the Problem Solvers Caucus who is among the holdouts in Pelosi’s bid to win another term as speaker. Those nine currently have considerable influence as she works to reach the number of votes she needs to be elected speaker. Soto and his fellow Democrats in the caucus announced last week that they would not support Pelosi unless she agreed to rule changes that they argue would “break the gridlock.” Pelosi is scheduled to meet with its members on Tuesday, though she preempted the conversation by having an aide put out a statement arguing that she’s already agreed to many of their proposals and gone further.

The Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus made no such demands on Paul Ryan before supporting him in his bid for speaker last year. Members of the Problem Solvers from both parties meet regularly and met with Trump at the White House last September. So far, they have not produced any workable legislative solution on any issue.

The idea of challenging Pelosi first came up in a series of conference calls among No Labels officials and outside advisers in January 2017, and made it as far as the founder and CEO Nancy Jacobson asking in an internal email chain, “How many people voted for Pelosi in her last primaries?” Jacobson is a former Democratic operative who currently works as a business consultant and helped form No Labels in 2010; she has run it ever since. She is married to Mark Penn, the former Clinton strategist who has since fallen out of favor with them.

The internal email was obtained by The Atlantic, along with several others from and to Jacobson. Her questions prompted a response from her staff that described Pelosi’s overwhelming support in 2014 and 2016 and reminded Jacobson and the others that California’s “top-two” system meant that a challenge to Pelosi would be more difficult than in most states’ primaries: An opponent would have to be able to beat her not just among Democrats, but among the whole electorate on the day of the general election.

Pelosi has been in office since 1987 and has huge support in her district. Jacobson had wanted to run a candidate against her from the center, as it was then preparing to do in several House races over the last year.

Jacobson’s idea of running against Pelosi faded. But her opposition to Pelosi did not. In the spring of 2018, she asked staff to explore looking into labeling Pelosi a “bogeyman” after the Democratic Representative Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a centrist member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, fended off a primary challenge from the left. While Pelosi had endorsed Lipinski, Jacobson believed Pelosi had secretly opposed his bid. (The argument against Jacobson’s “bogeyman” idea, put forth by Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, the Daily Beast reported on Monday, was that it would be like declaring war on the Democratic leader.)

Representative Soto drew Jacobson’s ire almost immediately after taking office in 2017, after an article reporting that he had taken the assistant whip post was distributed among No Labels staff.

“So Soto is now asst whip …” Jacobson wrote in an internal email on January 17. Margaret White, a senior adviser, responded: “And he is boycotting the inauguration …”

“Not a promising early development,” Clancy chimed in.

Less than an hour later, Jacobson wrote back, posing a question: “Do we ever take on someone we helped …?”

The conversation appears to have faded after that, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Jacobson on Monday initially responded to questions from The Atlantic by saying the group had never considered challenging Soto. “We supported Darren Soto. Heavily. Both his elections. 2016 and 2018. Over 1.5 million total,” she wrote in an email.

When presented with what she had previously written to her staff about him, she responded, “As a group we support people who are willing to work across the aisle to solve problems and don’t support people who put partisanship above progress. As a consequence—we consider lots of options and ideas and we always hold true to our central values of promoting bi-partisan solutions to our nation’s problems.”

Later on Monday, Clancy claimed that both the Pelosi and Soto discussions were “idle speculation.” Later, when asked what level of exploration he would consider more real, Clancy wrote, “I don’t know what classifies as idle speculation versus what classifies as more seriously flirting with an idea. I do know that whatever ideas were being tossed around in January 2017 were shelved pretty quickly once it was clear the Problem Solvers were emerging as a serious group and the best use of resources would be to protect and elect members of that Caucus for the duration of the cycle.” He pointed to independent expenditure efforts that helped eight Democrats and eight Republicans.

But No Labels looked into taking out another Democrat almost a year later. In December 2017, Jacobson sent an email to advisers and people in New Hampshire with the subject line “advice asap” in search of how to respond to Annie Kuster, a Democratic congresswoman, with whom she had just had a call asking her to rejoin the Problem Solvers Caucus.

“It did NOT go well. She ended up hanging up on me … She told me our group was offensive … She told me we had accomplished nothing and that she was the true bipartisan,” Jacobson wrote, calling herself “shaken up by her aggressive and hostile actions and speech.”

She then asked for help on the ground to mount a campaign against Kuster. In follow-up emails to people in New Hampshire, Jacobson asked about potential primary challengers, including Dick Swett, a former representative and ambassador, and Steve Marchand, who was running in the gubernatorial primary by talking up his 2016 support for Bernie Sanders.

Upon being told they were weak, Jacobson asked about Republicans and asked for contact information for one of the candidates running. “What are the political facts about her district?” Jacobson asked in one email in December 2017. “Why are there no republican challengers?” she asked in another. She also reached out directly to Swett to ask him about running.

On Monday, Jacobson said, “We support members of Congress who truly want to reach across the aisle to solve problems. We have a strong citizen group in New Hampshire that is very disappointed in Congresswoman Kuster and her disdain for our mission.”

Jacobson did not respond to a follow-up question asking about the emails showing her own prompting of the discussion about opposing Kuster.

Reached briefly by phone on Monday, Kuster laughed and said she did not remember her conversation with Jacobson as being that brusque. A spokesman for Kuster followed up with a statement saying she “has a proven track record of working across the aisle to deliver real results for the people of New Hampshire.”

A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment. Soto did not return multiple requests for comment.

Democrats were not the only ones who sparked Jacobson’s ire for not signing on with the Problem Solvers Caucus. Representative Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican elected with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of No Labels support in his successful 2016 primary challenge to the Tea Party–Freedom Caucus Representative Tim Huelskamp, refused to join the Problem Solvers Caucus when he arrived in Washington.

Marshall told Representative Tom Reed of New York, a fellow Republican, that he would not submit to the group’s demand to vote in a bloc on any issue that had two-thirds support from its members.

Marshall’s chief of staff, Brent Robertson, emailed an explanation to Reed. “We chastise the Freedom Caucus for these very practices and we cannot in good conscience do the exact same thing, even if it is for a ‘worthy cause,’” he wrote.

His email prompted a flurry of calls from prominent supporters, who asked that Representative Marshall change his position, but Marshall refused. Robertson declined to comment.

No Labels did not, in the end, look into challenging Marshall in his next election.