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Opinion: Columnists

Libertarians and fringe candidates could tip Senate races

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Politics,Opinion,Byron York,Columnists,Libertarian Party,2014 Elections,Tom Cotton,Mark Pryor,Mark Begich,Thom Tillis

Could libertarians and other fringe candidates decide who controls the Senate next year? With Republicans and Democrats locked in a number of tight races, it's possible that marginal candidates in states like Arkansas, Alaska and *North Carolina — all places crucial to GOP hopes to win Senate control — could play a small but decisive role.

In Arkansas in 2008, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's re-election was such a sure bet that no Republican even bothered to challenge him. Pryor's only real competition was a Green Party candidate who got 20 percent of the vote. Now, Pryor is locked in a toss-up race with Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, and there are two fringe-party candidates who could affect the outcome.

'My name is Sean Haugh, and I approve this message -- why am I supposed to say that?'

Together, the Green Party's Mark Swaney and Libertarian Nathan LaFrance are supported by seven percent of Arkansans in the most recent state poll done by the Democratic polling firm PPP. With the main candidates just two points apart — Cotton at 41 percent, Pryor at 39 percent — there's a real possibility fringe parties could play an outsize role.

Precisely how is not clear. Would the Green candidate only take votes from Pryor? The Libertarian only from Cotton? It's not possible to predict. But it is safe to say that even if the two fringe candidates receive far less than seven percent of the vote — say, just two or three percent — their presence could tilt an extremely close Pryor-Cotton race one way or the other.

Alaska has a history of third-party candidates. When Democratic Sen. Mark Begich was elected in 2008, a combination of Alaska Independence Party, Libertarian, and other candidates got nearly six percent of the vote. Today, Alaska Independence and Libertarian candidates are polling at seven percent. If the race is close between Begich and his still-to-be-determined Republican opponent, the third-party factor could be decisive.

Media accounts of fringe candidates sometimes focus on personal eccentricities to the exclusion of serious issues. In North Carolina, for example, Libertarian Senate candidate Sean Haugh is a 53-year-old pizza deliveryman whose campaign consists mostly of making videos of himself discussing weighty issues — war and peace, government spending — while sipping craft beer out of a glass bearing the Image of legendary libertarian economist Murray Rothbard.

"My name is Sean Haugh, and I approve this message — why am I supposed to say that?" Haugh asked in one of the videos.

"It's a rule, Sean," said an off-screen voice.

"But it's me," Haugh said. "I'm talking. It's just me. Of course I approve this message."

"Just say it."

It was an amusing scene, but Haugh could be a very serious factor in the North Carolina race. In a late-August PPP survey, Haugh received eight percent support. If he actually got that much in the election, he could determine the outcome. And even if he receives far less — many observers expect his share of the vote to shrink by at least half on election day — Haugh could make a difference.

The conventional wisdom is that Haugh would hurt Thom Tillis, the Republican Senate candidate in North Carolina. But the situation might not be that clear cut. Recently some conservative strategists made a careful study of the Virginia governor's race, in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe won narrowly after a Libertarian candidate received six and a half percent of the vote. The strategists went into the study thinking the Libertarian took votes mostly from Republican Ken Cuccinnelli — taking maybe 90 votes from Cuccinnelli for every 10 votes from McAuliffe. The study showed that yes, the Libertarian did hurt Cuccinnelli, but that the ratio was closer to 60-40. So the damage was not quite as one-sided as some in the GOP thought.

Still, a Libertarian candidate nearly always presents a challenge to the Republican. "We do have a problem with the libertarians," says the conservative strategist who directed the Virginia study. "The Democrats fund them. The Left has gotten good at that. We've got to address it by 2016."

Libertarianism is a hot topic these days, at least in some media circles. A recent New York Times magazine cover story asked, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" with the answer being yes, sort of. Some libertarians seem ready to embrace the presidential candidacy of Sen. Rand Paul and, if the Times is to believed, many throw glamorous libertarian-themed parties in Washington.

But out in the states, Libertarian and other third-party candidates could be a troublesome wild card for Republicans trying to win the Senate.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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