The 7 states where Libertarians could swing control of the Senate


Libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, is running for the US Senate from North Carolina. His campaigning is done through videos that are filmed and produced by his campaign manager, Rachel Mills (not pictured).(Photo by Megan Morr/For the Washington Post)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited a claim about Roger Roots, the candidate in Montana. It has been updated.

The Libertarian Party candidates running for U.S. Senate seats this year don’t fit the typical profile of a politician. One is a pizza delivery guy with a taste for microbrews. One is a former Republican legislator from another state. Another is an arctic biology field station camp manager. And a fourth has a criminal record.

But taken together, the candidates who have achieved ballot access in 11 states with competitive Senate contests have the potential to sway control of the chamber at large. In close contests, even a handful of votes one way or the other can alter an outcome. Karen Tumulty and I take a look at the broader dynamics at play in today’s paper, but here’s a closer look at some of the Libertarian contenders on the ballot this year:

North Carolina: Sean Haugh has run for office five times before, never successfully. He’s a pizza deliveryman who’s raised about $4,000, including one-tenth of a bitcoin. And in four recent surveys, Haugh has pulled between 8 and 11 percentage points, enough to make a big difference in the race between Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R).

Montana: It’s only July, but Roger Roots has already scored a victory that Libertarians around the country hope to duplicate: He made it into a debate. Last month, Roots stood on stage next to Sen. John Walsh (D) and Rep. Steve Daines (R) to make his pitch to voters. Roots’s presence on the debate stage might not have been extraordinary but for his extremely checkered past. A twice-convicted felon, he had been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the author of anti-Semitic articles..

West Virginia: John Buckley knows something about winning political races. He’s a former state legislator in Virginia, and a former employee at the American Conservative Union, the Cato Institute and the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University. He also once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with a Reagan for President bumper sticker, according to his biography. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is favored in this race, but Buckley could tap into conservative anger over Capito’s voting record.

Virginia: In 2013, Robert Sarvis took 6.5 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliffe won by just 2.6 percent. Now, Sarvis is running against Sen. Mark Warner (D) and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie (R). Early Quinnipiac polls show Sarvis attracting 6 percent of the vote, including 11 percent among crucial independent voters.

Alaska: Libertarians actually face a competitive primary in the race against Sen. Mark Begich (D). Thom Walker, an assistant camp manager at the University of Alaska’s Toolik Field Station, only has a web presence on Facebook, where he posts photos of kayak trips and his dog. Former state Libertarian Party chairman Mark Fish, who worked for former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller (R), jumped in the race earlier this year; he quit the state Human Rights Commission after making comments about a “radical feminist” in a blog post. Another former state party chairman, Scott Kohlhaas, took 1,240 votes in the 2004 Senate race, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) won her first full term.

Kentucky: Police officer Dave Patterson is still petitioning to get on the ballot this year. He’ll need to collect 5,000 signatures from across the state to run against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D). Patterson is a direct descendent of two passengers who set sail on the Mayflower; Carla Howell, the national Libertarian Party’s political director, made a point to mention Patterson as one of the candidates she’s watching most closely.

Arkansas: Party strategists here haven’t had to deal with Libertarian candidates very often. There hasn’t been a Libertarian in a Senate race since at least 1980. But Nathan LaFrance wants to change that. An energy manager at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, LaFrance is making his first run for political office this year, against Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R).

Libertarians will also be on the ballot in Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan, and a candidate is petitioning to get on the ballot in New Hampshire. Should Republicans be worried? Brad Todd, a strategist working for Cotton in Arkansas and Tillis in North Carolina, says this may not be the best year for Libertarians to peel votes away from Republicans, because the issue matrix lines up well for the GOP.

“This is a year when the number one issue is a get-government-out-of-our-lives thing,” Todd said. “This is not the kind of year where we are at odds with [Libertarians].”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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