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 on 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 and 11 percent – 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.
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“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, which showed the Libertarian at 11 percent 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 homestretch, 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 percent in May and 9 percent in June.
Across the nation
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 also 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 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. Many there still wonder whether the outcome was swung by the 6.5 percent of the vote that Libertarian Robert Sarvis received. Sarvis is on the Virginia ballot again this year, running for 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.
One of those disgusted with the lack of options was Haugh, 53, a longtime Libertarian Party organizer and five-time unsuccessful candidate for various offices.
He got his start in campaigns by gathering signatures to get the 1980 Libertarian presidential ticket on state ballots across the country. The party’s vice presidential nominee that year was David Koch, the younger of the now-famous Koch brothers, whom Haugh found to be “a sweet fellow.” Haugh later did stints as the North Carolina Libertarian Party’s executive director and the national party’s political director.
But by 2010, Haugh said he had sworn off politics as a profession. That sent him into a tough job market – hence the pizza gig, which it turns out he likes. (He would prefer not to mention the name of the chain in print, because, really, why get the corporate headquarters all mixed up in this?)
Haugh filed to run, he said, only because he “couldn’t stand the idea of walking into the voting booth and just seeing the Democrat and the Republican on the ballot.”
Actually campaigning, however, is hard to do, what with his lack of resources and his commitment to his pizza route. So Haugh makes videos and posts them on YouTube.
Wednesday afternoon, he and campaign manager Rachel Mills recorded three more videos in the space of an hour. Mills, who spent five years as press secretary to libertarian congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, ran the camera in her toy-strewn basement while keeping an eye on a baby monitor to make sure her toddlers were still napping upstairs.
In his messages, Haugh comes off as folksy and erudite, funny and earnest.
“In Syria, we’re supporting Sunni extremist rebels against government forces. But in Iraq, we’re supporting government forces against the Sunni extremists. How crazy is that?” he asks in one of the segments.
He acknowledges that these videos, the most popular of which has been viewed nearly 10,000 times, do not explain his splash in the polls. Nor has his fundraising been particularly impressive: His campaign has brought in around $4,000 – including $600 from his mother, a few other three-figure checks and one-tenth of a bitcoin.
“The No. 1 factor is the branding of Libertarian,” he said. “One of the huge differences between when I ran (for Senate) in 2002 and this time is ‘Libertarian’ is a household word now. Everybody knows what it means.”
Not just spoilers
But this is also something of an existential moment for libertarians politically.
They are playing an increasingly influential role in the grass roots of the Republican Party. One of their own, Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., may be in the top tier of 2016 GOP presidential candidates. And their belief in a minimalist, fiscally disciplined government overlaps with that of the tea party.
But many doubt that the Republican Party will ever accept libertarianism’s live-and-let-live liberalism on social issues or their noninterventionist approach to foreign policy.
“It’s a constant,” North Carolina Libertarian Party spokesman Brian Irving said of the quandary. “We have very good, dedicated libertarians that we call ‘small-l’ libertarians – they’re not a part of the party – who are working their hearts out to change the Republican Party.”
But the capital-letter variety of Libertarian partisan, Irving said, does not believe that the GOP will never adapt.
Haugh and other Libertarian Party candidates bristle at the suggestion that the most they can hope for is to be spoilers. And it is not always clear which of the two major parties stands to suffer when a Libertarian does well.
Republicans in North Carolina say Haugh is drawing support from Democrats who have lost faith in President Barack Obama and Hagan; Democrats say he is benefiting from the fact that 54 percent of Republicans voted for someone other than Tillis, the GOP challenger, in the May primary.
At this point, polls suggest that both Hagan and Tillis are struggling with the fact that more voters view them unfavorably than favorably. Both are being pounded with negative ads from outside groups. That potentially creates an opportunity for a none-of-the-above.
If it persists, having a Libertarian on the ballot as an alternative can “definitely change the dynamic of a race,” said Erik Iverson, a GOP strategist in Montana.
He knows that from experience, having worked for the last two Republican candidates who lost to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. In 2006 and in 2012, the vote received by a Libertarian candidate exceeded Tester’s margin of victory.
“What you don’t want that Libertarian to become, which is what happened in Montana in 2012, is a receptacle for some Republican voters who can’t vote for the Democrat. It’s just not in their fiber, but the Republican is just someone they can’t support for a variety of reasons,” Iverson said. “You need to actively campaign with a Libertarian in the race just as you would with a Democratic opponent.”