On Thursday afternoon, the third-party candidate with arguably the single greatest chance of being labeled a "spoiler" in battle to control the U.S. Senate abruptly dropped out to endorse his embattled competitor, the reliably anti-libertarian Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.).
"President Trump has asked that conservatives stand together and reelect Lindsey Graham in order to help make America great again, and I agree," Constitution Party nominee Bill Bledsoe explained in a statement.
Bledsoe, a veterinarian, ran for Senate in 2016 under both the Constitution Party and Libertarian Party banners, winning 1.8 percent of the vote. He averaged 3.5 percent in the two polls this year on which his name appeared. (Deep-funded Democratic challenger Jamie Harrison averaged 44.5 percent, compared to Graham's 44 percent.) The race is projected by nine of 10 prognosticators to be at least leaning Republican, with the tenth calling it even.
The pressure on nonconformist candidates and voters alike to join the Manichean political war of 2020 is intense, contributing to significantly lower support for independent and third-party candidates over the past two years. While the headline focus in our presidentially obsessed culture is on how this flight from experimentation affects the contest for the White House, the fact is that even after Bledsoe's abdication, several independent and third-party campaigns have the potential to affect one of the most difficult-to-predict political questions in the country right now: Which of the two major parties will have control of the Senate in 2021?
The GOP currently holds a slim 53–45 advantage in the upper chamber (with the two independents caucusing with Democrats), but prognosticators unanimously see that margin shrinking or even reversing after the election for 35 seats this November. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Democrats a 63 percent chance of winning a majority.
Eight of the 10 forecasting agencies Wikipedia collects on its Senate elections page project the parties to be either tied or within one seat of each other after the dust from the election settles. With nine individual races at or near "tossup" status, look for a mixture of arm-twisting and backroom sweeteners to persuade potential spoilers to pull a Bledsoe.
Here are five Senate races where third-party candidates are likeliest to receive more votes than the margin between the Democrat and Republican. They are ranked by the percentage-point distance between their own polling numbers and the top-two gap, with the usual caveats that there frequently aren't many polls and that third-party candidates routinely undershoot their pre-election projections.
Field, polling percentages: Cal Cunningham (D), 42.6; Thom Tillis (R, incumbent), 40.5; Bray, 3.0; Kevin Hayes (Constitution), 1.6; other/not voting/undecided, 12.3 (14 polls).
Forecast: Six out of 10 election forecasters classify this race as a tossup; three say leans toward the Democrats; one says it's a likely Dem win. Analyzes Vox's Dylan Scott: "Everybody I spoke to expects an extraordinarily tight Senate race. The outcome could very well decide which party controls the Senate in 2021, going by the Sabato's Crystal Ball ratings. Assuming Democrats lose in the Alabama Senate race but win in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine—which forecasters say is a fairly likely scenario—then they just need a win in either North Carolina or Iowa. With one of those toss-up states, by Sabato's reckoning, Democrats can secure 50 Senate seats."
Know your "spoiler": Bray is a Navy vet who currently works in cybersecurity for the Defense Department. He is campaigning on the cybersecurity issue, plus improving health care for veterans and fighting for "equal rights under the law for all American citizens."
Field, polling percentages: David Perdue (R, incumbent), 46.0; Jon Ossoff (D, 42.6); Hazel, 3.9; other/not voting/undecided, 7.6 (7 polls).
Forecast: Five of 10 outfits say the race leans toward the Republican; four say it's a tossup. "A sure sign the outcome is in doubt," reported the Athens Banner-Herald on September 18, "is how much the candidates and the national super PACs backing them are spending to bomb the airwaves, to the dismay of political ad-weary TV viewers. Total TV/radio ad spending in the race, including future bookings, is now more than $83.4 million." An important note: Georgia requires runoffs if no candidate wins a majority, which means (as University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock told the Banner-Herald), "We may not know which party controls the Senate until January."
Know your "spoiler": Hazel is a former Marine and current podcaster who wants to "#EndTheWars," "#EndTheFed," and "#EndTheEmpire." Mission statement: "[T]o bring people together while preserving the freedom of every individual, regardless of skin color, age, faith, gender, love and every other nuance which make us unique. We must come together and remove the government/corporate cabals from the lives of peaceful people here in the US and around the world."
Field, polling percentages: Sara Gideon (D), 44.2; Susan Collins (R, incumbent), 41.6; Savage, 2.6; Linn 2.0; other/not voting/undecided, 9.8 (5 polls).
Forecast: Six out of 10 agencies rate this one a tossup, others are "likely" or "lean" Democrat. BUT THERE'S A TWIST. Maine will at long last this year use ranked choice voting in a federal race, which means that if no candidate wins a plurality, the low man/woman will be tossed out, with his/her votes redistributed based on who those voters listed as their second choice. This process will be repeated for as long as it takes for someone to win a majority.
Know your "spoilers": Savage, a teacher and grandmother from rural Maine, is a Green in everything but name. "I believe we deserve a government that works for us, not the big banks, weapons manufacturers, fossil fuel giants and corporate lobbyists who are calling the shots in Washington," she told Ballotpedia. Linn, an eccentric, Trumpy financial planner who has mounted runs for office previously as a Republican, a Democrat, and a member of the Reform Party, favors a five-year ban on all immigration; he answered a recent debate question about coronavirus policy by theatrically cutting up a mask.
Field, polling percentages: Theresa Greenfield (D), 45.7; Joni Ernst (R, incumbent), 43.7; Stewart, 1.7; Suzanne Herzog (i), 1.0; other/not voting/undecided, 7.3 (3 polls).
Forecast: All 10 election prognosticators rate Ernst's re-election bid as a tossup. The Washington Post says: "So far, $155 million has been spent in Iowa on the Senate race alone. The TV is filled with dark messages of political rot. Greenfield, the daughter of a crop-duster, has raised more money than Ernst. She is wearing well, attracting 10 percent of voters who supported Trump four years ago."
Know your "spoiler": Stewart, a former cop, retired entrepreneur, and Calvin Coolidge aficionado, ran against Ernst in 2014 as an independent, earning 2.4 percent of the vote to her 52.1 percent. (Libertarian Douglas Butzier got 0.7 percent.) As a Libertarian, he won 26.2 percent of the vote in a losing contest for Linn County sheriff, and he got 3 percent in 2018 when running for secretary of agriculture. He is campaigning to "End all wars" (including "the racist Drug War"), "end all economic nonsense," and "keep government simple."
The question mark is there because Howe, a Ron Swansonesque machinist who wants to eliminate taxes, privatize public land, and make government functions voluntary, has not yet been included in any poll against the Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan and the Democrat-backed independent challenger Al Gross.
Alaska is traditionally one of the most third-party-friendly terrains, and non-major-party candidates have received at least 6 percent combined in every election for this Senate seat since 1996. As for the 2020 race, seven out of 10 forecasters rate the headline race a likely Republican win and two say it leans R, but there is a tossup forecast in there too.
And Howe is a real humdinger: "The government—federal, state, borough, city—all are thieves. Even when the spending comes from a vote of the people it is stealing, the only difference is those that voted for spending are now also guilty. How do we fund government without theft?"