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2014 Races Where Third-Party and Independent Candidates Could Impact Outcomes

While it’s very hard for third-party and independent candidates to win statewide elections outright, they can have some impact on the outcome. This may be true again in some 2014 contests for U.S. Senate and governor. Some outsider candidates will get a fair amount of press, such as ex-Sen. Larry Pressler’s independent Senate bid in South Dakota or Libertarian Robert Sarvis’ second statewide run, this time in Virginia’s Senate contest (Sarvis won a sizable amount of the vote in the 2013 Old Dominion gubernatorial race). But only a few minor-party candidates will truly be in a position to actually affect the final results. Below are some races where this may be the case:

AK-Sen: While most of Last Frontier ballot won’t be determined until the state’s Aug. 19 primary, Alaskan electoral history suggests that third-party nominees will get more than a few votes in November. In every Senate contest since 1992, non-major party candidates have won at least 5% of the vote, most notably Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R) write-in reelection victory in 2010 (where she won 39.5%). And in the state’s past three Senate elections, the victor has only won a plurality, not a majority. With vulnerable Sen. Mark Begich (D) expected to have a close race against his still-to-be-determined GOP opponent (most likely former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan), votes cast for third-party candidates could influence the race’s outcome. The Alaska Libertarian and Alaskan Independence parties will have nominees on the November ballot, and both could potentially “steal” a few votes from the Republican nominee. Meanwhile, no left-leaning parties (such as the Greens) have anyone running, though independent candidates have until primary day to enter the race. Also worth watching in Alaska is the third-party gubernatorial candidacy of Bill Walker, a former Republican who lost the GOP primary to Gov. Sean Parnell in 2010. The incumbent Parnell is a big favorite to win the three-way race among him, Walker, and Democratic nominee Byron Mallott, though.

HI-Gov: Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) appears to have a whole host of problems. First, there’s at least some chance that he will lose renomination to unheralded state Sen. David Ige (D) in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary. But even if the eyebrow-raising primary polls coming out of the Aloha State are wrong, which is possible, Abercrombie’s reelection hopes could also be derailed by an old foe: Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who Abercrombie defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor, is running in November as an independent. Hannemann’s potential impact on the race is difficult to know at this point. After losing to Abercrombie in 2010, Hannemann lost by 20 points to now-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) in the 2012 Democratic primary for the HI-2 U.S. House seat. So his recent electoral history isn’t incredibly strong. Still, Hannemann previously won the mayoralty of the state’s lone major city and has won a not-insubstantial number of votes in Democratic primaries. Given the incumbent’s low approval rating, it’s certainly possible that Hannemann could garner enough votes to help ex-Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R) win in his rematch against Abercrombie, who defeated him in 2010.

ME-Gov: Independent Eliot Cutler is again seeking the Pine Tree State’s governorship after losing by less than 10,000 votes (less than two percentage points) to now-Gov. Paul LePage (R) in 2010. However, polling suggests that Cutler may only play spoiler this time around as Democrats have nominated a much stronger candidate than they did in 2010, Rep. Mike Michaud (D, ME-2). Still, Cutler’s participation in the contest could possibly aid the incumbent; Cutler’s background as a former aide to Sen. Ed Muskie (D) and center-to-center-left issue positions are more likely to siphon off Democratic votes than Republican ones. In November, LePage could conceivably be thanking Cutler for a second term should the independent still garner sizable support on Election Day.

MT-Sen: It appears increasingly likely that appointed Sen. John Walsh (D) is going to need a lot of help in 2014 to remain in the Senate — polls show him trailing Rep. Steve Daines (R) by a significant margin. Perhaps he will consider pursuing a similar strategy to the one that benefited fellow Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) in 2012. Shadowy allies of Tester bolstered the campaign of Libertarian Dan Cox with radio and television ads calling Cox a “real conservative” or “true conservative.” Those ads may have helped raise Cox’s profile, and on Election Day 2012, Cox won nearly 32,000 votes (6.6% of the total) while Tester only defeated then-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) by about 18,000 votes. Would all of Cox’s votes have gone to Rehberg? Probably not, but Libertarian candidates tend to draw more from Republicans than Democrats (though many Libertarian voters simply won’t show up to vote for either major party if they are the only choices).  This time around, Libertarian Roger Roots is on the ballot; should Walsh close the gap on Daines, third-party votes for Roots could potentially prove critical once again in Big Sky Country. Yet one has to think that Daines and his campaign are very much aware of last cycle’s bit of subterfuge and will be ready for it.

NC-Sen: Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is one of five Democratic Senate incumbents seeking reelection who come from states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Based on pure fundamentals, she may be in the best position of any of them to win — North Carolina is simply a more Democratic state than Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, or Montana. Now the question is, could Libertarian Sean Haugh impact the outcome in the Tar Heel State? Early surveys seem to show him doing exactly that — Haugh is polling at around 9% in the polling averages and attracting national attention with some homemade YouTube videos. History has shown that non-major party candidates with large early support typically fade as November gets closer. However, it’s possible that Haugh winds up becoming a “none of the above” option for voters who are particularly dissatisfied with the major-party candidates, as aforementioned Libertarian Robert Sarvis did in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial contest between now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). Still, it’s not actually clear if a relatively strong showing from Haugh would actually hinder state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) all that much: In his videos, Haugh comes across as pretty liberal on social issues. Such views are likely anathema to many of the GOP voters who didn’t vote for Tillis in the state’s May 6 primary and might be inclined to look at other candidates before turning back to Tillis. In the end, Haugh may well do better than the 1.5% of the vote he won in his 2002 Senate bid, but it’s unlikely he’ll get close to 9%. But in a very tight race, Haugh’s take might be consequential.

SC-Gov: For all the coverage of ex-state Treasurer and reality television actor Thomas Ravenel’s decision to launch an independent bid for Senate against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Palmetto State race where an independent candidacy could really matter is in the gubernatorial contest. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) only narrowly defeated state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) in the 2010 GOP wave year, and Sheheen is back for a rematch in 2014. Of the many problems she’s had as a candidate and as governor, Haley has struggled to get the state GOP to unify behind her, exemplified by the decision of ex-state Rep. Tom Ervin (a Republican) to run as an independent in November. Ervin’s entry into the contest could hand Sheheen a path to victory: If Sheheen can duplicate his 2010 vote take of 47%, a 5% or so performance from Ervin could put the Democrat in a position to possibly win on Election Day, with the possibility of a couple other third-party candidates taking some percentage of the vote as well.

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Did we miss any other potentially impactful third-party candidates in Senate or gubernatorial races? If so, e-mail us at [email protected], and we might include your suggestion in a future edition of the Crystal Ball.