Feb 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Ex-tobacco exec bankrolls centrist third party

Illustration of a magnifying glass on the Serve America Movement (SAM) logo

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new centrist political party is gaining steam, but records show it’s being largely financed by a single man: a former Philip Morris executive who helped steer the company through the tobacco wars of the 1990s.

Why it matters: The Serve America Movement is running candidates in a handful of states, banking on the appeal of a non-ideological party. The outsized financial influence of donor Charles W. Wall underscores the challenge of overcoming extreme partisan rancor with a process-focused political movement.

What’s happening: Serve America was founded in 2017. It was initially led by some prominent “Never Trump” Republicans, Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen and former executive director Sarah Lenti.

  • The group eschews traditional policy platforms in favor of political process, with a focus on transparency, voting rights and political accountability.
  • SAM has state chapters in New York and Connecticut, and it ran or endorsed gubernatorial candidates in both states in 2018, drawing nearly 4% of the vote in Connecticut — significantly better than any other third party.
  • The party’s new executive chairman, former Republican Rep. David Jolly, is considering a 2022 run for Florida governor on the Serve America Movement ticket.

What’s new: SAM’s national office, which complements but is legally independent of the state chapters, has been largely financed by Wall.

  • Wall was vice chairman of Philip Morris and received scrutiny amid 1990s-era battles over cigarettes’ public health effects.
  • Nearly three of every four dollars the group's national office has raised, roughly $3.4 million, has come from Wall, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, including more than 93% of the group’s funding last year.

Between the lines: Centrist political movements generally draw more backing from wealthy and corporate interests than grassroots donors, who tend to be more ideologically driven.

  • Jolly nonetheless insists momentum is on SAM's side. “The events of Jan. 6 just ignited this new party movement,” he said.

What’s next: Jolly previewed SAM's slate for 2021 and 2022. He said it will be involved in elections in Virginia, Texas, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Florida.

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