TIME elections

This Election Season, Revenge of the Thirds

Extra-party politicians heat up the race for 2014

For most of the modern era, third-party candidates have acted like the crazy uncles of American politics: fun to watch but rarely relevant. But in the past four years, the outcomes of four Senate races have been jumbled by outsiders, and this year is set to deliver even more disruption.

Ten of the 12 Senate seats with the potential to swing in November have drawn third-party challengers. Nine of those races have Libertarian Party candidates who are likely to pull votes from Republicans. That’s hardly news for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who is hoping his party can take six seats and regain control of the Senate, but who may have to contend with a Libertarian challenger of his own in Kentucky’s general election.

The question now is how much of a difference third-party hopefuls will make in the outcome of the fall contests. In the razor-thin race in Georgia, outside candidates like Libertarian Amanda Swafford, a paralegal and former city councilwoman who started her own newspaper, have drawn up to 7% of the vote in early polls. In North Carolina, Libertarian Sean Haugh, a pizza deliveryman, has rated in the high single digits in early polls, far more than the gap separating the two major-party candidates there.

The Libertarian boom grows out of Tea Party estrangement from Establishment Republicans and should, at the margins, benefit Democratic candidates. But even the most strident antigovernment candidates may draw some Democratic votes this year.

The volatile mix of angry voters and long ballots might even delay the election’s outcome. In Louisiana’s free-for-all contest, two outside candidates look likely to deprive the two main hopefuls, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy, of an outright win of 50% of the vote, forcing a runoff scheduled for Dec. 6. If control of the Senate hangs on that race, the nation will have to wait until then to learn who rules the chamber.

This appears in the August 18, 2014 issue of TIME.
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