Politics & Government

Libertarian pizza delivery driver Sean Haugh could decide U.S. Senate election

The man who might determine the outcome of North Carolina's U.S. Senate race this year makes his living delivering pizza, conducts most of his campaigning via YouTube videos and is considering whether to become a driver for Uber, the taxi-like car service.

Political experts and polls say Libertarian Sean Haugh of Durham isn't likely to win, although he says he can.

But the polls say Haugh appears to be pulling some voters who otherwise would pick lawyer and former bank executive Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democrat, and many more voters from the Republican candidate, state House speaker and former business executive Thom Tillis.

In the face of the tens of millions of dollars being spent by the mainline campaigns and their outside supporters and detractors to flood North Carolina's airwaves, computer screens and mailboxes, low budget may be a generous term to describe the Haugh campaign.

Haugh, whose name rhymes with "saw," estimates he has spent $7,000. "I'll be surprised if I get over ($10,000)," he said.

Social media outlets - Facebook, Twitter and, especially, YouTube - have been Haugh's primary tools to reach out to the voters.

He has made 30 videos since March in the basement rec room of campaign manager Rachel Mills' home. Next to a poker table covered with Hot Wheels tracks, and a few feet from an overflowing toy box (Mills has two young children whose nap times affect the shooting schedule), Haugh sits at a bar and talks to the camera. He has a craft beer close at hand, opens with a friendly "howdy" and quickly outlines his positions.

The video titles include "Stop the War on Drugs," "Delete the NSA," "Term Limits for Reporters" and "Pollution is a Crime."

The channel has about 235 subscribers. The viewership runs from 125 on the most recent missive, posted Monday, to 13,850 for his opening statement, issued six months ago.

Haugh's campaign page on Facebook has about 1,125 likes. On Twitter, he has about 400 followers.

Senate candidates need to reach more than 6.5 million voters (fewer than 25,000 are registered as Libertarian).

Despite the numbers, Haugh is confident. He doesn't believe he is pulling votes from Tillis. He noted that Hagan has run ahead in recent polls and thinks that will boost votes for the Libertarian ticket.

"I think that as we get closer to the election, and it becomes more apparent that ... in the contest simply between the two of them, Hagan wins every time. She's assured of beating him. That makes it a lot safer in people's minds to vote for me.

"Because we're disproving the notion that my presence in the race has any effect whatsoever in Tillis' impending, certain loss. I mean: He's going to lose this election because the voters rejected him, not because I had anything to do with it at all."

Hagan has run slightly ahead in the polls, but the race is expected by most observers to be extremely tight between her and Tillis. The race has drawn vast sums of money and attention because it is one of six expected to determine whether the Republican Party will take control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats.

"If Kay Hagan wins this race by 1 percent, and Haugh has 1.3 percent of the vote or something, which is a scenario that is honestly - something like that - is entirely possible, plausible. Then, yeah, he could make the difference," said political scientist Steven Greene of N.C. State University. He described the possibility as "not unlikely."

Haugh and other Libertarians performed better than 1.3 percent in the four most recent U.S. Senate races here. When Haugh last ran in 2002, he had 33,807 votes, nearly 1.5 percent of the 2.3 million votes cast.

The 2004 Libertarian candidate drew 1.4 percent, 2008's drew 3.1 percent and in 2010, the most recent year with a U.S. Senate race here, the Libertarian had 2.1 percent.

The ultimate winners in all those years won by wide enough margins that the outcomes would not have changed even if every Libertarian vote had gone to the second-place candidates.

The most recent publicly released polls that asked voters about Haugh say he is drawing 5 percent to 6 percent of the vote.

Haugh is a variable that Tillis must consider, said Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn. Wrenn used to run the U.S. Senate campaigns of Republican icon Jesse Helms.

"I think in the list of his worries, it's on there. But there's just not but so much he can do to address it," Wrenn said. "You can't eliminate it. It's a fact. And just try to get enough votes to win, even with the problem."

Wrenn and other observers have said Haugh's support is likely to drop from its current levels when Libertarian conservative voters enter the voting booths. They'll have to consider whether votes for Haugh will help Hagan when, if they are forced to choose between Hagan and Tillis, they prefer Tillis. Several recent polls have said Tillis is their second choice.

The Tillis campaign may have to tell voters that choosing Haugh will help Hagan, Wrenn said.

"If you're Tillis' campaign, you make the case that you're going to get your third choice if you vote for the Libertarian," he said.

The Tillis camp wouldn't say much about how it plans to handle the Haugh effect.

"Ultimately, the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina will come down to whether voters want six more years of Kay Hagan, who will continue to do nothing but rubber-stamp President Obama and Harry Reid's failed policies, or to elect Thom Tillis, a proven independent leader who will work across the aisle to put middle-class families first and get our economy back on track," Tillis spokeswoman Meghan Burris said via email. Reid is the majority leader in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Other Republicans have been more vocal.

Haugh said he is regularly contacted by Republican voters "who seem to be actually organized, not a spontaneous thing at all."

They send two or three pieces of "hate mail every day, telling me to drop out of the race because, of course, Kay Hagan being elected is just going to be the end of the world," Haugh said.

"They've never, ever given me a reason why Thom Tillis is worth a vote or my support at all," he said.

The Daily Caller, a conservative political news outlet, recently highlighted an online argument between a Republican voter and Haugh.

"Sean, PLEASE drop out," the voter said to him on Facebook, warning that "Hagan WILL take the seat if you keep siphoning votes."

The conversation quickly devolved and eventually Haugh described the voter and others like her as "ignorant morons."

"I very deliberately was abusive to her," Haugh said Friday. "And it's not my finest moment, to be sure. ... But I wanted her to do exactly what she did, which was to manage to get that message out in front of that entire audience, so that anybody who has that opinion knows what ... kind of disdain I have for it."

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