Tulsi Gabbard is having a moment, and the party is getting nervous

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 96 days until the Iowa caucuses and 370 days until the 2020 election.

Is Tulsi Gabbard planning to run a third-party presidential campaign? And if she does, will it help President Trump win reelection?

In the never-ending cycle of Democratic angst over the 2020 election, those are today’s leading worries.

In recent weeks the Hawaii congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate has appeared in far more headlines than her 1.9 percent national polling average would seem to merit. This is mostly because of her ability to attract and capitalize on controversy.

In a recent interview with former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, Hillary Clinton implied that Gabbard might be “a Russian asset” in that country’s efforts to help President Trump. Gabbard, an Iraq veteran who has staked her campaign on her opposition to “endless” “regime-change wars,” responded by calling Clinton “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”

Their spat led to several news cycles of speculation about some of the positions Gabbard has taken during her four terms in the House, including her demands that Obama use the term “radical Islam,” her advocacy for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and her defense of Russian bombing campaigns in Syria. Gabbard retorted with tweets about the “concerted campaign to destroy my reputation” being waged by Clinton and her “proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine.”

The back-and-forth distracted from the larger point Clinton was trying to make: that Democrats should be worried about the possibility of Gabbard running as a spoiler and siphoning votes from the party’s nominee.

According to New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, that threat is becoming clearer every day. Citing an op-ed published by Gabbard in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal — and singling out a passage in which the congresswoman claims that “whether Mrs. Clinton’s name is on the ballot or not, her foreign policy will be, as many of the Democratic candidates adhere to her [hawkish] doctrine” — Chait argues that Gabbard is now “heavily hinting at a spoiler campaign to help Trump.”

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, at a Democratic presidential primary debate. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

“Gabbard is saying right now that any Democratic nominee is going to be Hillary Clinton,” Chait writes. “What does that tell you about her intentions?”

Chait probably goes too far here. Gabbard didn’t write that “any” Democrat would be conduct foreign policy like Clinton; she said “many.” It’s hard to imagine her mounting a third-party campaign against, say, Bernie Sanders, who espouses similarly noninterventionist positions and for whom she resigned as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to endorse.

But what if Democrats don’t nominate Sanders?

Chait is correct that Gabbard doesn’t seem to be running to win the Democratic primary. In fact, much of her recent behavior seems consistent with some sort of effort to undermine it. She has declared that she will forgo another campaign for her congressional seat to avoid a tough race back home and focus exclusively on her White House bid, even though she barely registers in the presidential primary polls. She has accused the DNC of “hijack[ing] the entire election process” and leading an “effort to rig the 2020 primary” against her. She recently huddled at the restaurant of Trump adviser turned critic Anthony Scaramucci with Wall Street donors looking to stymie anticorporate candidates like Elizabeth Warren. And she has appeared frequently on Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and other Trump-friendly programs, often to criticize her fellow Democrats for running a “very, very partisan” impeachment inquiry that could “tear apart an already divided country.”

In other words, Gabbard is refashioning herself as a “troll candidate” — someone more interested in getting attention by airing grievances against her ostensible allies (i.e., Democrats) than in defeating her ostensible opponents (i.e., Republicans). Actual online trolls — including Russian state media — are taking notice.

Who knows if this strategy will ever translate into an actual third-party run? Gabbard said in August that she has “ruled that out,” and unless she ignores the ideological mismatch and joins an already established party such as the Greens or the Libertarians — which choose their nominees before the Democrats — she would have a difficult time securing ballot access.

Yet whatever Gabbard decides, the latest data suggests that she does have the potential to make life harder for the eventual Democratic nominee. A new CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire and released this week shows that 5 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in that state now support Gabbard, up 4 percent since July — good for fifth place alongside entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) speaks during a press conference at the 9/11 Tribute Museum in Lower Manhattan on October 29, 2019 in New York City.  (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Gabbard at a press conference in New York on Tuesday. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But more interesting than the level of Gabbard’s support is its source: namely, Republicans and 2016 Trump voters. Only 23 percent of self-identified Democrats who are planning to vote in the Granite State’s open primary view Gabbard favorably, for instance. Among self-identified Republicans who are also planning to participate, however, that number leaps to 59 percent. The split between Clinton voters and Trump voters is similar; 20 percent of the former have a favorable view of Gabbard, versus 55 percent of the latter. The only other Democrat who comes close is Sanders (35 percent).

Superficially, it might seem that it would help Democrats if Gabbard were to run outside the two-party system and attract support from 2016 Trump voters while doing it. But remember: The Trump voters and Republicans who responded to the CNN poll were deemed likely to vote Democratic this time around. In other words, they’re exactly the sort of swing voters Democrats are hoping to win in 2020. The fact that they’re disproportionately pro-Gabbard suggests that her antiestablishment grievance politics are resonating — and could continue to resonate if the party nominates a more establishment figure.

Gabbard’s plan appears to be to keep stoking internal discord and dissatisfaction for as long as possible, regardless of whether she ever runs as a third-party candidate. A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll showing Gabbard at 4 percent nationally may help her qualify for the December debate, and she recently vowed to take her campaign all the way to the July convention no matter how she performs in the upcoming primaries and caucuses. “My interest and goal is not just to leave the party and run separately,” Gabbard said last week. “My goal is to actually strengthen the party.”

But far from worrying about Gabbard’s crossover appeal, Trump and his allies seem to be rejoicing. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke is a fan. (Gabbard has rejected his support.) So is former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. “You feel like this is just a serious person,” far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich recently told the New York Times. “She seems very Trumpian.” The Trumps themselves have been sympathetic, with the president (who considered her for a Cabinet post) weighing in on Gabbard’s behalf during her tussle with Clinton, and Donald Trump Jr. talking her up Wednesday morning on “Fox & Friends.

If they believed that what Gabbard is doing is helping Democrats, Trump & Co. would probably be singing a different tune.

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: