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Will Democrats face a third-party problem — again?

Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura speaks in 2017. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP)
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Former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura says he’s interested in the Green Party’s presidential nomination. Ex-coal magnate Don Blankenship is seeking the Constitution Party nod. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, despite her denials, is prompting fears among Democrats that she will launch her own third-party run. No one knows what Rep. Justin Amash will do.

Traumatized by recent elections, jittery about their field and desperate to defeat President Trump, Democrats are increasingly worried about a potential third-party candidacy as the primaries approach and well-known figures are openly weighing their options.

Such a candidate could siphon critical votes in pivotal states, they fear, as happened in 2000 and 2016, helping Republicans twice capture the presidency while losing the popular vote — something Democrats are petrified could happen again. The situation is fluid, but a wide-open political landscape and a chaotic Democratic primary are prompting active third-party conversations around an array of figures.

Some of the prospects seem more remote than others. Blankenship, a former coal executive convicted of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety rules, spent more than $4 million of his own money in a failed 2018 bid for one of West Virginia’s U.S. Senate seats that was opposed by Trump and other Republican leaders.

In that race, Blankenship declared that he was “Trumpier than Trump,” but in an interview, Blankenship suggested he now thinks the president is not getting the job done. “I see a country that does not have a plan to get better or to make the country be great again,” Blankenship said.

Ventura, the onetime professional wrestler who hosts a news and commentary show on the Russian-backed media network RT, said he is interested in the Green Party nomination, though he is not taking any steps to secure it.

“You want to know why Trump will fear me?” Ventura said in an interview. “Trump knows he can never outtalk a pro wrestler. Trump knows I was the greatest talker ever in pro wrestling. Plus, I’m a veteran. He’s not.”

In a more traditional vein, and potentially a bigger threat to Democrats, Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, has publicly urged Gabbard, a Democratic presidential contender who’s trailing in the polls, to switch parties and run as a Green.

Gabbard (Hawaii) has a small but devoted following, but she has consistently said she is not considering such a move. She is, however, the only Democrat still in the race who has not signed a pledge to “rally behind the winner” of the Democratic contest.

“She’s said no so many times, what does she have to do?” Gabbard spokesman Cullen Tiernan tweeted on Oct. 30. “Say no while standing upside down on the ceiling?”

Few Democrats find such statements reassuring. Taken together, the three smaller parties — Green, Libertarian and Constitution — scored more than 4 percent of the popular vote in 2016.

More important, they may have played a spoiler role in crucial states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where 5 percent of voters went for the three parties’ presidential contenders, and the Libertarian and Green Party candidates each received more votes than Trump’s winning margin over Hillary Clinton.

Some Democratic strategists say third-party assistance will be necessary for Trump to win reelection.

“The reality is, he is going to have a difficulty, from a vote share standpoint, of getting north of 48 percent in the battlegrounds,” said David Plouffe, who helped run both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “So it is going to behoove him to drive up third-party vote share.”

Trump has begun promoting the Greens on Twitter. “They need a Green Party more than ever after looking at the Democrats disastrous environmental program!” he wrote, although Green leaders consider Trump’s own environmental record disastrous.

The outsider parties’ success will depend on whether they can recruit big-name candidates, and on whether the increased polarization of the Trump era leaves room for voters to feel they have a third option.

For now, no one who can command instant star status or spend millions of dollars has officially announced a third-party run. The Libertarian Party, for example, includes more than a dozen hopefuls, including a software engineer who legally changed his middle name to “Taxation is Theft”; an antiwar protester who has been fighting drug possession charges in Texas; and Vermin Supreme, a perennial candidate best known for wearing a boot on his head and promising ponies to voters.

Then there’s Amash. Back in January, the Michigan congressman who switched from Republican to independent to protest the GOP’s allegiance to Trump, joked that the ideal Libertarian candidate “wears Air Jordans” while he was wearing that brand of shoes.

More recently, at a July event in Las Vegas, Amash told Libertarian Party Executive Director Dan Fishman that he was not yet ready to discuss a possible presidential campaign.

“He said there that ‘the critical message is that I have left the Republican Party, and if I did anything else right now, that message would be muddled,’ ” Fishman said.

Amash’s office declined a request for comment.

In the Green Party, the leading contender is Howie Hawkins, a co-founder of the party who received less than 2 percent of the vote in his 2018 run for New York governor.

Libertarian Party rules make it easy for a latecomer to grab the nomination, because the May convention will have no bound delegates. The Green Party convention, by contrast, which takes place in July, could be decided in a first round of voting, in which delegates will be bound by the results of state caucuses and primaries.

Hawkins has a head start on that process, and he said he doesn’t see a route for someone like Ventura or Gabbard to enter the process late.

“I would feel bad if Trump got reelected. I would. But it’s not our fault,” Hawkins said. “When people vote Green, they vote Green. To assume that our voters will [vote] Democratic in the absence of a Green candidate is a dubious assumption.”

In close elections, however, third parties can prove decisive.

An academic study of the 2000 presidential race in Florida found that about 40 percent of Green Party nominee Ralph Nader’s voters would have voted for Bush if Nader had not been on the ballot. The other 60 percent, however, would have voted for Democrat Al Gore. Given the razor-thin result in 2000, that would have been enough to swing the Florida outcome in Gore’s favor.

Still, some political scientists suggest the Trump era could be producing forces, such as intense partisan tribalism, that will diminish third-party votes.

“There seems to be a lot of disaffected voters with the party system, but partisanship is still very strong among voters,” said Daniel Lee, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

In the Constitution Party, Blankenship’s bid immediately makes him a top contender for the nomination, in part because his wealth gives him an ability to self-fund. Blankenship’s advisers have said he is “attempting to be the first person ever to become an occupant of the White House after having been in the ‘big house,’ ” a reference to his year in federal prison.

Blankenship, in the interview, said he objects to Trump’s “childish” tweets and to “his family or his cohorts” who involve themselves in primaries. Blankenship has sued several entities — including The Washington Post, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. — for defamation, arguing that false references to him as a “felon” contributed to his loss in the 2018 Senate primary.

His views of Trump are complex, given that he plans to run against the president. “I am still supportive of the president’s policies, and generally I am supporting the president,” Blankenship said. “The country has got to be saved.”

Ventura, for his part, argues that he has a route to the Green Party nomination despite his lack of plans to campaign anytime soon. Splitting his time between Minnesota and an off-the-grid house in Mexico, Ventura has his own take on Russia and President Vladimir Putin, whom he says he met in Moscow at a December 2015 dinner sponsored by the RT network.

“He said, ‘I will never intervene in your show creatively or artistically. You have your own show.’ And he is a man of his word,” Ventura recalled, referring to his program, “The World According to Jesse.” “I take personal offense when I am told that I am the arm of the Kremlin. How dare you, mainstream media.”

Ventura has become a booster of closer relations between Russia and the United States. He said it is not acceptable for a foreign nation to interfere in U.S. elections, but he celebrated the release of internal Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign, which U.S. intelligence officials blame on a Russian hack.

“I came out publicly and said, ‘If what they said was true, we should thank the messenger,’ ” Ventura said.