Opinion writer

Ben Sasse and his children in Lincoln, Neb., in 2014. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

There is great confusion in the GOP ranks and the media about the likelihood of a third candidate running. Multiple sources confirm there are several groups with access to funding, in communication with one another, working on a third-party run. It is not, as commonly argued, all that difficult to get on ballots in most every state. “The process is complex but not hard,” says longtime GOP operative Rick Wilson, who is involved in such efforts. “All the steps are explicable, and the lawyers know how to get it home. Even in ballot access states due in May, there are legal hacks around it.”

In part, this is because there is not just one way to qualify for ballots. Those who have researched the process tell me that in some states an independent run is most feasible. In others, qualifying on the “line” of an existing party is the best route; that party need not be the same in all states. There are also write-in campaigns. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) — not an easy name to spell — won that way in Alaska in 2010 after losing the GOP primary. It is also possible to form a brand-new party, as then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) did after losing his primary in 2006. He won under the “Connecticut for Lieberman” party.

It is also worth remembering that in 1980, John B. Anderson got on the ballot in all 50 states, in some cases winning lawsuits that invalidated overly restrictive ballot requirements. Anderson v Celebrezze, which remains good law today, held that very early deadlines are not constitutional. Anderson wound up with only about 7 percent of the vote (with an incumbent president and the popular Ronald Reagan as competition), but Ross Perot drew about 19 percent in 1992, Teddy Roosevelt got 27 percent in 1912, and George Wallace got five states and 13.5 percent of the vote in 1968 against a sitting vice president and a former vice president. (All of these took place in the pre-Internet, pre- 24/7-news-cycle era when most Americans got their news once a night from three TV networks and/or from a single newspaper.)

“An independent race is more doable than conventional wisdom has it, and lots of different individuals and groups are working or are ready to work on aspects of it,” says one of the most prominent backers of a third candidate, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. “What’s really needed — in a way, all that’s really needed — is a candidate to jell around.” For a time, third-candidate backers thought they had a solid chance with retired Gen. James Mattis, but he ultimately decided not to run.

Names we have heard discussed include former senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, former Texas governor Rick Perry (who would almost certainly win his home state, thereby removing any hope Trump could be elected), retired Gen. Ray Odierno (who last year challenged Trump’s pronouncements on Iraq), and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. (And yes, Mitt Romney would have a big leg up insofar as he has built-in name ID, a donor network and the credibility that comes with warning the country repeatedly about Trump and, before that, President Obama’s flawed foreign policy.)

Sasse, interestingly, put out a long string of tweets and a Facebook post  in the form of an open letter late Wednesday night musing on the need for a third party and suggesting a platform based on a few key issues: national security; “honest budgeting/entitlements to stop stealing from our kids”; “empower states to improve K-12, & let DC focus on programmatic reform for age of lifelong learning/job retraining”; and ending the revolving door and special perks for politicians. His summation sure sounded like the beginning of something. “[People in his local Walmart] deserve better. They deserve a Congress that tackles the biggest policy problems facing the nation. And they deserve a president who knows that his or her job is not to ‘reign,’ but to serve as commander-in-chief and to ‘faithfully execute’ the laws — not to claim imperial powers to rewrite them with his pen and phone.” A spokesman for Sasse pointedly did not rule out a run, emailing Right Turn: “Senator Sasse has been clear when asked before: he has three little kids and the only callings he wants — raising them and serving Nebraskans.” In fact, that doesn’t come close to a “No.”

But is there a pathway to winning? Here’s where it gets interesting. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the most unlikable, flawed candidates in moderate presidential political history. With an optimistic, down-to-earth candidate with some crossover appeal, a third candidate could well pick off states including Arizona, Utah and Texas from Trump and challenge Clinton in states like Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada that she needs to get to 270. Let’s also remember that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson may be in the race, further dividing the vote. At some point, one sees that we might realistically have a situation in which no one gets to 270 electoral votes. (By then, Clinton’s and Trump’s unfavorables would be astronomically high.) The House of Representatives then decides the presidency, and the Senate picks the vice president.

To be certain, this is complicated, but after getting past the ballot issues, one can imagine that if an independent is going to make headway, this is the year to do it. Throw in the fact that Trump has little or no viable fundraising network and one can imagine a third candidate (especially one who made an appeal to go beyond partisan loyalty and focused on some big-picture issues) being very financially competitive, sweeping up the donors who won’t lift a finger to fund Trump.