Greg Orman is running an independent U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas. (Chris Neal/The Capital Journal via Associated Press)

We are a little more than one month out from the 2014 midterm elections. There is an influx of new polling right now, and pundits are rampantly speculating about every possible path for Republicans to take back the Senate. But an underreported issue could be a sleeper hand grenade that ignites Election Night and blasts Republicans in several states: While almost nobody was looking, a group of third-party candidates have sprung up on the ballot like a bunch of poisonous mushrooms. Third-party Senate candidates in crucial states like Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Virginia and Alaska aren’t going to win, but they could very well make the difference in these elections. And each of these candidates –- most of whom are self-described Libertarians — has the potential to help the Democrats more than the Republicans.

Of course, Kansas is another state where the third-party candidate poses a challenge for the Republicans.  The difference in Kansas is that, now the Democratic candidate has dropped out of the race altogether, the so-called independent candidate may actually win. And a third-party Senate candidate in Louisiana could hand Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) a second chance, since there will be a runoff election if no candidate receives a majority of the votes on Election Day. Third-party candidates may also affect gubernatorial races in Maine, Hawaii and South Carolina – but that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, it is worth watching these third-party candidates and the impact they will have on the 2014 elections. In the lead-up to November, keep an eye out for Democrats to try and hide their role in helping these candidates diminish the Republican margin. The records aren’t crystal-clear, but in the past, the Democrats have not been shy about giving to these marginal candidates in order to keep votes from the Republicans.  We saw it happen in the last gubernatorial election in Virginia, where Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis received a large contribution from a major Democratic donor and Obama campaign bundler – and took almost 7 percent of the vote in a race Terry McAuliffe (D) won by only 2.5 percent. This time, Sarvis is running as a Senate candidate, but his campaign could have a similar effect.

Republicans need to be prepared for these third-party candidates to get a boost in coming weeks, as Democrats try to diminish the votes for GOP candidates and retain control of the Senate for the final two years of President Obama’s term. The fact is, Republicans need to outperform in order to clear the extra hurdle these third-party candidates represent. The next 36 days won’t be easy.

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