WASHINGTON (AP) — Caught off-guard by a third-party candidate, veteran GOP Sen. Pat Roberts replaced his campaign manager and summoned new aides to try to revive his re-election bid in a state that should be easy for Republicans.
It's a rare achievement by independent candidate Greg Orman, although it's far from certain he can oust Roberts on Nov. 4. Still, his story might inspire a pizza deliveryman in North Carolina, a "libertarian cop" in Kentucky and an Alaska candidate named Fish who would love to make their own splashes as third-party Senate candidates.
Orman, who has called himself a Democrat and a Republican in the past, was doing so well in this year's Kansas race as an independent that the Democratic nominee, Chad Taylor, abruptly canceled his candidacy this week. With that, the conservative state landed on the list of conceivable, if improbable, Democratic gains in the national battle for Senate control.
Republicans must pick up six seats in November to win the majority, and the new uncertainty over Roberts' fate complicates their drive.
Kansas Republicans, worried about Orman possibly consolidating anti-Roberts sentiment, challenged the legality of Taylor's withdrawal. The Kansas secretary of state said Taylor's name must remain on the ballot.
Orman's case is unusual. Most third-party candidates have no chance of being elected themselves. But in a handful of extremely tight races, including North Carolina, Alaska, Georgia and Kentucky, third-party candidates could help decide who wins and which party controls the Senate in the final two years of Barack Obama's presidency.
Third-party candidates are chiefly a worry for Republicans. Many of these long-shot hopefuls are libertarians who tend to appeal to conservative voters, who otherwise might lean GOP.
Established Republicans are quick to note that most third-party candidates become nonfactors, winning minuscule portions of the vote.
The notion that Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh could cost Republican nominee Thom Tillis the Senate seat in North Carolina, for instance, "is a story line being created by the media," said Paul Shumaker, a top Tillis adviser. He said Haugh, a pizza deliveryman, doesn't have enough campaign money to identify and turn out his potential supporters on Nov. 4.
"All our modeling clearly shows less than 2 percent" of the vote going to Haugh, Shumaker said. And that's probably not enough to decide whether Tillis will oust first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
Thomas Mills, who helped run an unsuccessful Democratic Senate race in North Carolina in 2010, said the campaign had hoped a once-promising libertarian contender would maintain his early poll numbers. "But they just disappeared," Mills said, and the same might happen with Haugh.
Still, Mills said, some North Carolina tea partyers see Tillis as too mainstream and business-oriented and Haugh "gives them a place to go."
The chief problem with third-party candidates, Mills said, is they often attract "cranks" who won't vote for a Democrat or Republican. One cannot assume a vote for Haugh would have gone to Tillis if Haugh weren't running, he said.
In Louisiana, a non-establishment conservative candidate is leading the accusation that Sen. Mary Landrieu, a three-term Democrat, doesn't legally live in the state and has "gone Washington." Rob Maness is a Republican, but he's a tea party-backed alternative to the GOP establishment's favorite, Rep. Bill Cassidy. Maness is doing the heavy lifting on the residency question, letting Cassidy keep his hands relatively clean.
In Louisiana's all-comers election process, Landrieu, Cassidy, Maness and others will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot. If no one exceeds 50 percent, the top two finishers will enter a runoff.
In at least a few cases, third-party candidates have played significant roles. In Montana's 2012 Senate race, Sen. Jon Tester faced a tough challenge from Republican Denny Rehberg. National Democrats mailed flyers supporting Libertarian candidate Dan Cox in a bid to steer conservatives away from Rehberg. Cox won 7 percent of the vote, to Rehberg's 45 percent and Tester's 49 percent.
Senate races that might be affected by third-party candidates this year include:
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes will need help to beat GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell in this Republican-leaning state, and she hopes a tiny slice might come from Harrodsburg police officer David Patterson.
Patterson, the Libertarian nominee, might appeal to some Kentucky conservatives who resent the way McConnell steamrolled tea party champion Matt Bevin in the Republican primary. Patterson told Kentuckians his goal "is to maximize individual liberty by curbing government interference into your personal daily life."
First-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich faces a challenge from Republican Dan Sullivan, a former state attorney general. Obama lost Alaska badly in 2008 and 2012, and Begich will welcome any votes that third-party candidates can take from Sullivan.
Help conceivably could come from Libertarian candidate Mark Fish. Like many third-party candidates, however, Fish has a dubious record. In 2012 he left Alaska's Human Rights Commission when it was learned he wrote a poorly spelled blog that said "radical" feminists wanted to "eliminate men from the face of the earth."
Sullivan got a big break when Joe Miller, Alaska's 2010 Republican Senate nominee, agreed not to run as a third-party candidate this year.
Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue want the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Nunn hopes Libertarian nominee Amada Swafford will pull some votes from Perdue.
Swafford, a paralegal, supports the "fair tax," which would replace all federal income taxes, including those earmarked for Social Security and Medicare, with a broad sales tax.
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