RALEIGH, North Carolina (PNN) - July 4, 2014 - Most evenings, Sean Haugh is a pizza deliveryman.
But every other week or so, the Libertarian Party’s Senate nominee in North Carolina opens a few craft beers on the counter of the bar in his campaign manager’s basement. He takes deep gulps from a pint glass bearing an image of Austrian-school economist Murray Rothbard and expresses his Everyman frustrations with the current political system into a video camera.
So far, Haugh’s campaign barely exists anywhere but on YouTube. But it is doing surprisingly well in a high-stakes Senate contest in which candidates and outside groups have already spent more than $15 million.
Four polls lately put his support somewhere between 8-11% - not enough to suggest a realistic possibility of winning, but conceivably enough to affect the outcome of the race. The same surveys show the margin between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and her GOP challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, at six points or less.
“If it ends up being a one- or two-point race, Democrats could keep the Senate because of Sean Haugh,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling (PPP), which showed the Libertarian at 11% in its May and June surveys.
That scenario might seem far-fetched, but considering how closely the battle for control of the Senate is being fought across the national map, the major parties are taking notice.
At a minimum, “we’re preparing for a very tight race down the home stretch, and every vote is going to count,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the Democrats’ coordinated campaign operation in North Carolina. “Definitely Haugh’s got both sides’ attention.”
In addition to the automated PPP surveys, two live-caller polls by the conservative Civitas Institute had Haugh at 8% in May and 9% in June.
North Carolina is not the only state where Democrats and Republicans are starting to look over their shoulders and down the ballot.
Libertarians are poised to draw votes in at least 10 other competitive Senate elections this fall - in Montana, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Michigan, Virginia, West Virginia and Alaska. The party is working to collect enough signatures to appear on ballots in Kentucky and New Hampshire and is attracting attention with gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Kansas.
How well any of them will do is hard to predict. Many pollsters have a policy of excluding from their surveys third-party candidates who lack celebrity or financial resources, on the theory that people who say they will vote for them rarely end up doing it, said Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll, which does not plan to add Haugh to its horse-race questions.
Wake Forest University political scientist John Dinan agreed. “We have seen time and time again that if a pollster includes a third-party candidate in a list of candidates in a survey taken several months out from the election, that this will often generate a support level of around 10 percentage points. But the closer we come to Election Day, this support almost inevitably fades to a minimal level.”
Then again, there’s what happened last year in Virginia. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the governor’s mansion by a 2.6-point margin over Republican Ken Cuccinelli II. Many there still wonder whether the outcome was swung by the 6.5% of the vote that Libertarian Robert Sarvis received. Sarvis is on the Virginia ballot again this year, running for the Senate.
The idea that there is an alternative to the two major parties has no small appeal at a time when voters are so disillusioned.