Donald Trump appears with Jesse Ventura in 2000, when Ventura was governor of Minnesota and Trump was considering a Reform Party bid for president. (RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Dean Barkley, the campaign strategist who engineered Jesse Ventura’s wild win as Minnesota governor in 1998, recognizes Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The bluster, the sparring with reporters, the brash appeal to a segment of the population that is unhappy with politics as usual — it’s all the ingredients of Ventura’s Minnesota Miracle.

“He’s doing exactly the same thing we did,” Barkley said in a recent interview. “It’s like they’re reading our playbook. He visited us during the campaign and tracked the strategy we used. I’m almost flattered.”

Hopeless campaigns against impossible odds are pet projects for the devoted, the eccentric, the weird, the tinfoil-hat wearers of the American political fringe. They never win — unless maybe if we’re talking about a county commissioner — and this has been the logic that nearly all serious observers have spouted about Trump’s bid.

But once upon a time, in a far northern place called Minnesota, actual grownups with little or no alcohol in their bloodstreams went to the polls and elected a former feather-boa-wearing wrestler and motorcycle gang member as their actual governor.

It was so surprising that the campaign’s media adviser remembers Ventura’s wife, Terry, weeping at the victory party, because now they would have to be the First Couple, and her family life was upended.

It’s hard to blame her sense of shock. On June 1, Ventura sat at 7 percent in the polls.

He trailed Democrat Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III, the state’s longtime attorney general, by 39 points. Norman Coleman, the Republican candidate and the very popular mayor of St. Paul, led him by 23 points.

“I just remember my closest adviser saying, a day or so before the election, ‘Don’t worry about him, don’t worry about him, don’t worry about him,’ ” Coleman said recently. “He’s got no organization. There’s no way he can win.”

On Nov. 3, Ventura won with 37 percent of the vote.

“We shocked the world,” he bellowed.

When the early returns were reported on television, “the Democratic campaign manager looked like somebody ran over his dog,” remembers Bill Hillsman, the advertising executive who created Ventura’s instant-classic campaign ads.

So how did Ventura pull it off? Is it actually possible that The Donald could use The Body’s playbook for the win?

Reconstructing that campaign with interviews with the key players, save Ventura (who declined to speak to The Washington Post for this story) or campaign manager Doug Friedline (who has died) shows there are potent but limited comparisons.

Both relish showmanship and being in front of the camera. Both deliver blistering criticisms of the media and career politicians. Voters hold them to a more lenient standard. Both are seen to be independent of special-interest groups. Both earn points with voters for saying things that they think.


Minnesota gubernatorial candidates Norm Coleman (R), left, and Jesse Ventura (Reform Party) debate during the 1998 campaign. (JIM MONE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But there are profound differences. Ventura’s active campaign was a three-month sprint, and he ran as a third-party candidate. Trump is seeking the Republican nomination over a 1 1/2 -year marathon. Ventura is a former Navy Seal; Trump got draft deferments. Ventura was, beneath the cartoon bluster, a local kid with a long-term marriage, and he volunteered as a football coach at a local high school. Voters saw him as a good dad and a regular dude. Trump is a billionaire and, well, not a regular dude. And although Ventura was and is socially progressive, Trump blasts minorities and immigrants in crude fashion.

For his part, Barkley, now a wills and estates lawyer, says Trump is in great shape.

“He’s got even better Teflon than Ventura,” he enthuses. “Nothing sticks to either of them. In October, only a week or so before the election, Jesse gives a speech and says he’s in favor of legalizing drugs and prostitution — and he went up in the polls. Who else could do that? He and Trump both say [politically] stupid things and they both get away with them.”

At first, a sad bid for governor

In January 1998, eleven months before the election, Minnesota native James George Jonas took to the steps of the state Capitol building and, blaring out an announcement under the stage name of Jesse Ventura, said he was running for governor.

It was sort of sad.

Ventura was 47 and had been out of WWE-style wrestling for a decade. Back in the day, at a chiseled 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he’d been “The Body,” a villain known for wearing sunglasses, the occasional feather boa and lots of skin oil. His slogan was “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.”

He’d done some B-movies (“I ain’t got time to bleed,” a line from “Predator,” became a pop-culture fave). He’d been a wrestling and football announcer. From 1990 to 1994, he was the mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Twin Cities suburb.

But now he was hosting an AM radio talk show on KFAN in Bloomington. The “I’m running for governor” schtick was as old as Pat Paulsen.

A few weeks later, the Star Tribune reported the fundraising totals: Humphrey had $265,000; Coleman, $113,000; Ventura, $1,195.

“Absolutely no one took him seriously,” says Tom Hauser, a veteran television reporter in Minneapolis and author of “Inside the Ropes with Jesse Ventura,” a recounting of the campaign and subsequent administration.

But behind Ventura’s outsized persona was a sharp and thoughtful family man, friends note. Jesse and Terry Ventura had been married for more than two decades. They raised two kids, kept them out of the spotlight, and lived on a 32-acre horse ranch that was valued at $500,000. He drove a Porsche but was known to be frugal (friends razzed him about being “cheap”). He drove water scooters and motorcycles, which voters counted as a regular touch. And Brooklyn Park might be a suburb, but it was also the state’s sixth-largest city.

“He had a pretty sophisticated world view and how things needed to change,” says Ted Mondale, son of the former vice president and a rival candidate. “He was very curious about things, about how they worked.”

Mondale didn’t get the Democratic nomination but and wound up being part of Ventura’s Cabinet. He says Ventura clearly knew how to work the crowds.

“We’d be following people around at shopping centers, trying to get three people to listen to us, and Jesse had been rappelling from the rafters to the floor at Timberwolves games in front of 13,000 screaming fans,” he says with a laugh.

‘Cut taxes. Cut taxes. Cut taxes.’

The summer of 1998 was a good one for Minnesota. The economy was roaring, fueled by the dot-com bubble. Per-capita income had surged from 17th in the United States in 1990 to 13th in 1997, political scientist Jacob Lentz noted in “Electing Jesse Ventura,” a statistical analysis of the election. The state had a $1 billion treasury surplus. Unemployment had been at 3 percent or lower for years and was below 2 percent in 1998. Crime had dropped 30 percent over the previous five years.

The electorate was nearly bubbly, remembers Coleman: “There was a feeling that who got elected almost didn’t matter . . . it was like, ‘How bad could anybody screw up this economy?’ ”

Ventura had a six-word campaign theme: “Cut taxes. Cut taxes. Cut taxes.”

Coleman and Humphrey had weaknesses.

Coleman’s problem was that he had been a Democrat, switched parties and then made ambiguous statements about gun control. Ventura pounced. During a televised debate, when Coleman lambasted Humphrey for not following through on promises he made voters 10 years earlier, Ventura deadpanned:

“Ten years ago, Norm was a Democrat.”

Humphrey had a similar problem with his own faithful. He had not won the party’s endorsement but still won the primary.

But the worst self-inflicted wound, all observers agree, was that Coleman and Humphrey played perfectly into Ventura’s scathing assessment of career politicians. As they “beat each other up” during the debates, Coleman recalls, Ventura was all but ignored.

“Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!” Hauser quotes one moderator saying, trying in vain to rein in the Coleman-Humphrey bickering.

Ventura had been doing live radio and television for years. His career was built on showmanship, the theatrical sound bite. This talent burst into life during a debate question on gay marriage. Coleman gave the standard Republican response, Humphrey the Democratic.

Ventura: “I believe that love is bigger than government.”

Driving somewhere in north Minnesota, Steve Bosacker heard that over the radio and nearly ran off the road. The chief of staff for former Democratic congressman Tim Penny pulled over and put the car in park.

“He got it, he just plain got it,” Bosacker remembers. He was so enthralled that he later became Ventura’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, young voters just plain loved him.

Roger Moe, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor that year, remembers being at a debate with Ventura in front of college students. He went for blood, asking Ventura if he had actually proposed eliminating financial aid to college students.

“I figured I had him,” Moe, now a lobbyist in the state, remembers. “Probably 70 percent of that crowd was getting aid for college. And he repeated his line, ‘If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to figure out how to pay for it.’ And they just ate it up. Loved it.”

A landslide win

Election day dawned with sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures.

It was the last break in a campaign full of them. The good weather helped Ventura benefit from a state law that allowed residents to register on election day. Crowds showed up, particularly young men, who were his biggest supporters.

Lentz, the political scientist, notes that 332,540 people both registered and voted that day, or 15.7 percent of the total ballots.

There is no exact number of how many of those votes went to Ventura. But using statistical modeling, Lentz estimates that Ventura got about 69 percent of those votes, or 225,184 ballots.

He won by 60,000.

Ventura set up an extremely talented administration, observers from both parties say. He drew approval ratings in the low 70 percent range early on. He oversaw a tax refund and got light rail built. Harvard invited him to lecture.

But he immediately signed a book deal after the election, then signed up to work as a wrestling referee and as a commentator for the short-lived XFL Football League, which led to criticism that he was using the governorship to enrich himself.

In a 1999 Playboy interview he said, “Organized religion is a sham for weak-minded people,” the Navy’s sexual-assault Tailhook scandal was “much ado about nothing,” mocked “fat people,” and said he’d like to be reincarnated as a “38, double-D bra.”

This did not go over well.

In his last year, when he shut down the governor’s mansion during a fight with the legislature over funding, the state attorney general blasted them all, saying: “It is a great destruction to the integrity and reputation of this state. We are making a mockery of ourselves.”

Will any of this apply to Trump?

Barkley is happy to conjecture: “Wouldn’t it be something to have a Trump/Ventura campaign? I would die and go to heaven if I got a part of that.”