The Democratic National Committee is building its first-ever team to counter third-party and independent presidential candidates, people involved told NBC News, as the party and its allies prepare for a potential all-out war on candidates they view as spoilers.

The DNC has hired veteran Democratic operative Lis Smith, best known for her work guiding the 2020 presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, to help oversee an aggressive communications component of the anti-third party strategy, which also includes opposition research and legal challenges.

Underscoring how important Democrats view the effort, it is being overseen by Mary Beth Cahill and Ramsey Reid, two veteran DNC insiders, who have already started issuing rare public statements rebuking Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Matt Corridoni, Smith’s former deputy on the Buttigieg campaign and most recently a top aide to Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., is also joining the team as a spokesperson.

“We’re facing an unprecedented election and we know the GOP is already working to prop up third-party candidates like Robert Kennedy Jr. to make them stalking horses for Donald Trump,” Corridoni told NBC News. “With so much on the line, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going to make sure voters are educated and we’re going to make sure all candidates are playing by the rules.”

The move comes as a coalition of outside groups — which includes Democratic and anti-Trump Republican organizations — stockpile money and work to stymie third parties.

“There is some Jill Stein hangover,” said Pat Dennis, the president of American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research group, referring to the 2016 Green Party nominee who was seen as a spoiler in places like Michigan. “A lot of people, including me, regret that we didn’t go after her further.”

Democrats have long blamed Green Party candidates like Stein and Ralph Nader for contributing to their losses in 2016 and 2000.

But they say third parties will be especially impactful in 2024 because of the nature of Trump’s support base.

“Trump needs to split the anti-Trump coalition. If we’re united, we win. If we’re not, he wins,” Dennis said. “We see [Kennedy and No Labels] essentially as an arm of the Trump campaign and we intend to treat it as such.”

Democrats have been quick to point out that the biggest donor to Kennedy’s super PAC is also one of Trump’s largest donors, an heir to the conservative Mellon family.

As they see it, Trump has a ceiling of support of around 46%, so to beat him, they need to compel the remaining majority of voters to back Biden. Trump can win without a majority of the vote, they argue, if third parties splinter what they see as the anti-Trump majority.

“The single biggest threat that helps put Trump back in the White House is third-party candidates. It’s not Biden’s age. It’s not whether Trump gets convicted. It’s not any of that stuff,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who co-founded a new super PAC that is preparing to run TV ads in battleground states.

The group, Citizens to Save Our Republic, is backed by a long and somewhat bipartisan list of bold-faced Washington names, including two former defense secretaries, five former senators, 14 current and former members of Congress, three former presidential candidates and several well-known Democratic and anti-Trump Republican operatives.

“It’s not like Trump doesn’t lose a vote or two, but the erosion occurs much more out of Biden than Trump,” Trippi said. “The Trump people know he needs strong third parties.”

Indeed, Trump’s campaign and his allies largely agree with that analysis, at least publicly, and some encouraged Kennedy to enter the race.

Trump expanded his vote share from 2016 to 2020, from 46.1% to 46.9%, but won in 2016 and lost in 2020 because of third parties, Trippi argued. In 2016, third-party candidates collectively received almost 5% of the national popular vote, while they earned only about 1.5% of the vote in 2020. 

Citizens to Save Our Republic has already run TV ads warning “all third parties and spoilers,” is preparing for a much bigger ad campaign in key states, and has begun an insider push to pressure No Labels to commit to standing down if it becomes clear they can’t win.

“The Biden campaign is going to have to spend a boatload of money educating people about the danger of a third-party vote,” said former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. “Biden will have to spend money explaining there’s no vote for anyone else that’s not a vote for Trump.”

The anti-third party coalition, whose hub is the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, has mostly focused on No Labels, given their superior fundraising and organization.

Behind the scenes, insiders in both parties have been pressuring potential candidates not to join the No Labels tickets, warning they would lose and be pariahs in their party, which has contributed to the No Labels’ struggles to find a credible top of their ticket.

“The growing list of top-tier prospects who have said no is important progress, but we’re going to keep at it until we know if they secured a name for their ticket. They only need one,” said Kate deGruyter of Third Way.

Third Way and the DNC have each separately retained lawyers to file legal challenges against Kennedy and his super PAC for alleged illegal coordination on ballot access. The super PAC said Monday it would stop gathering signatures on Kennedy’s behalf. 

End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform group, has pressured No Labels to disclose their donors and filed its own legal complaints with the IRS and 27 states arguing that No Labels is violating its non-profit tax status by essentially acting as a political party.

More legal challenges are almost guaranteed, with attorneys actively monitoring third-party ballot access attempts across the country to look for any slip-up that could be exploited.

And with dissatisfaction on Biden’s left, MoveOn is looking to deter young and progressive voters from voting third party, recently launching a six-figure ad buy warning that “voting for No Labels or any third party presidential candidate helps Trump win.” 

Meanwhile, Rick Wilson, the ex-Republican strategist who co-founded the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, said he and his colleagues are worried that third-party candidates will be an appealing option for anti-Trump Republicans and soft Democrats who don’t want to vote for either Trump or Biden.

“These are people that are not going to go from Biden to Trump, but they might go from Biden to a third party,” he said.

Wilson said he likes the idea of a multi-party democracy in theory, and would not be bothered by No Labels’ presidential ambitions in a more traditional election, but that the stakes are too high this year — even if it means depriving voters of options and making them chose between two candidates they might not be excited about.

“I’m not forcing anybody to do anything, I’m just living in a reality where if it’s a three-party problem, a three-body-problem, Donald Trump is going to win,” Wilson said.

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