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Republicans hoping to win back the Senate in November have been nervously monitoring the YouTube channel of a North Carolina pizza delivery man.
That’s because pizza man, craft beer aficionado and Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Sean Haugh has been winning over a small but important fraction of voters using homemade videos in place of million-dollar ad buys.
While there is little chance Haugh will win the race, polling shows it is possible he could end up siphoning off enough support from Republican candidate Thom Tillis to tip the election in favor of Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
Haugh is one of a series of libertarian and independent candidates appearing on the ballots of hotly contested Senate races taking place throughout the country. With a number of races expected to be close this November, Republicans worry that the few percentage points a Libertarian candidate may take from the GOP could cost the party in key states -- and even prevent them from winning the six seats they need to take control of the Senate.
One reason why voters may be more likely to entertain alternative candidates is how fed up they are with the two major parties. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this summer found just 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing and 80 percent are down on America’s political system.
“Third party support relates directly to voters being dissatisfied with the major candidates,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
A recent CNN/ORC International survey shows Haugh getting seven percent of the vote in a race where Tillis is closely trailing Hagan. Greene said those numbers will likely go down as Election Day nears, and the Tillis campaign believes television ads and campaign stops with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will help win over Libertarian-leaning voters.
Republicans also contend that Haugh, whose political views fall all over the ideological spectrum, could take votes from Hagan as well. (Though Haugh acknowledged the overlapping voter base he shares with Tillis when he made a tongue-in-cheek video calling on the Republican to drop out of the race and support him.)
Still, a third party candidate earning just one or two percent of support from conservative voters could make the difference in a close race.
Likewise in Georgia, Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford may keep Republican candidate David Perdue from reaching the 50 percent vote threshold necessary to prevent a runoff in January 2015. In Alaska, Libertarian Mike Fish is not having a Haugh-sized impact on the race, but could eat into Republican Dan Sullivan’s vote total. In Louisiana, support for tea party candidate Rob Maness is at 9 percent, according to the CNN/ORC poll. His presence in the race will likely prevent Republican Bill Cassidy or Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu from garnering the majority of the vote and send that contest to a runoff in December.
And in no state is an independent candidate having a bigger impact than in Kansas, where Greg Orman is giving Republican Sen. Pat Roberts the fight of his political life. Democratic Senate nominee Chad Taylor withdrew from the race and much of his support went to Orman, who has yet to say which party he would caucus with. A Libertarian is also in the race and will be a factor if the contest remains close.
There is a possibility that I could win this race, and I’m going for the win
But political observers caution the influence of third party candidates is often overstated in polls.
“Once you get close to Election Day, the support for third-party candidates starts ebbing away,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University.
It is not unprecedented for Republicans to point to alternative candidates when explaining an electoral defeat. Last year’s Virginia’s gubernatorial race saw Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli by only three points, while Libertarian Robert Sarvis got 6.5 percent of the vote. Republicans say Sarvis was a spoiler, but exit polls show many of his supporters would simply have stayed home if he had not been on the ballot.
But alternative candidates like Haugh take exception to being called “spoilers,” insisting to the naysayers that they are in it to win it.
“I think that’s a possibility of despair, like nothing will ever change,” Haugh told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in July when asked if his campaign is simply taking votes from Tillis. “There is a possibility that I could win this race, and I’m going for the win.”