WASHINGTON — Sean Haugh, a Libertarian candidate for US Senate in North Carolina, did not file a lawsuit or storm the television studio when he was excluded from a recent televised debate.
“I just went to work and delivered some pizzas,” he said, referring to his day job.
Underdog candidates such as Haugh, who said he has raised about $10,000, run in every election. But this year, with polls showing an unusually high number of close races, Haugh and other dark horses could swing elections — and determine which party controls the US Senate — even if they do not win.
Third-party candidates have a chance to win in two states — Kansas and, to a far lesser extent, South Dakota — while a Libertarian and a Republican aligned with the Tea Party movement could force a runoff in Georgia and Louisiana.
“People are just dissatisfied. They’re not seeing the reforms they need. They’re not seeing the principled leadership,” said Amanda Swafford, a Libertarian in Georgia, who could force a runoff between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn if neither candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. “In the past, a third-party vote was considered a protest vote, but this time we are really seeing a difference.”
Third-party candidates — several of whom have small budgets, day jobs, and few or no staffers to hand them talking points — present a stark contrast to their mainstream rivals who depend on poll-tested commercials, scripted stump speeches, and tens of millions of dollars from outside groups.
It is difficult to predict how they will do because they are often excluded from polls and debates. And when they do get support in polls, it often evaporates closer to the election when voters begin to worry their votes will be wasted. Still, even a few percentage points for a long-shot candidate could alter races.
Most analysts expect Republicans to take over the Senate in Tuesday’s voting by gaining six net Democratic seats. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and The New York Times’ TheUpshot both give the GOP about a 70 to 75 percent chance; the Washington Post Election Lab says 96 percent.
Tea Party movement and other insurgent candidates won several Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012, then stumbled in the general election, costing the Republican Party several winnable races.
This year, the Republican Party has largely succeeded in weeding out Tea Party movement candidates during Senate primaries.
Several candidates running in the general election say they are providing an outlet for disaffected voters who are fed up with the two mainstream candidates.
“I consider myself a Republican Party [candidate] with Tea Party support, and lots of it,” said Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel who is running for Senate in Louisiana.
Maness — who said he has raised about $2.5 million and recoils at the term “spoiler” — is technically not a third-party candidate. Under Louisiana’s voting rules, the Nov. 4 election is an open race with nine candidates representing Democrats, Republicans, and a Libertarian. If no one emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote, the race goes to a runoff between the top two candidates one month later.
Most mainstream Republican support in Louisiana has gone to Representative Bill Cassidy, while Democrats are backing Senator Mary Landrieu. Maness’s website contrasts the three candidates’ positions under the headings “Mary, Mary” and — referring to himself — “Quite Contrary.”
Maness, with help from Sarah Palin and other high-profile endorsers, drew 13 percent in one recent poll, increasing the chances of a runoff.
The three-way dynamic is different in South Dakota, where the independent candidate is striving to pull votes from moderates. Larry Pressler, now running as an independent, served three terms in the Senate from 1979 to 1997 as a Republican and endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012. He has one paid staffer and relies on his wife to drive him around the state.
“If I should win, it would be a great threat to the operational activities of the Republican and Democratic parties,” he said. “I’m not trying to destroy them, and I’m not trying to blow up the party system.”
Pressler has never led in a poll. But a SurveyUSA poll taken last month found him trailing front-runner Mike Rounds, a former Republican governor embroiled in a controversy over immigrant visas, by just three percentage points. Rounds has regained a double-digit lead in several polls, and Pressler’s presence has helped prevent Rick Weiland, the Democrat, from closing the gap.
Observers give the independent candidate in Kansas a better shot at winning. Greg Orman’s surprising success in opinion polls against Republican Senator Pat Roberts prompted the Democratic candidate Chad Taylor to withdraw from the race. Orman, who has been attacked as a secret Democrat, has seen his double-digit lead evaporate in recent weeks, and the race is now considered a dead heat.
Democrats had all but given up hope on both states, which had previously been considered locks for Republicans.
If Pressler or Orman wins his race, it would instigate a political bidding war for his support in the US Senate if control of the chamber is at stake.