Former South Dakota Republican Senator turned Independent candidate Larry Pressler could help upend GOP hopes to capturing the Senate in 2014.
Former South Dakota Republican Senator turned Independent candidate Larry Pressler could help upend GOP hopes to capturing the Senate in 2014.

For the first time since 2012 Republicans have an evident path to the Senate majority.  The path includes purple Colorado and Iowa and red Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, North Carolina and Louisiana.  In almost every case the GOP has a solid nominee that can win the contest (minus Alaska).  But just because the path is evident does not mean it is clear.

In the past Republicans have been hampered by insurgent elements in their party (Tea Party supported nominees).  But this cycle the GOP establishment has seen all their preferred nominees make it through to the general election (Alaska has yet to hold its primary).  So the danger of insurgent candidates upending the party is almost nil.

There remains a new danger for the party however; the danger of the third-party candidate.  In a host of competitive Senate contests, libertarian and former GOP turned Independent candidates threaten to steal votes from the party.  With many polls showing a number of the contests dead heats it is clear every vote counts.

Most worrying for the GOP has to be the number of Libertarian Party candidates that have popped up in numerous races, notably North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana and West Virginia.  Further, considering the deluge of spending that has gone into these contests to define the other sides nominees libertarians are polling strongly.  Republicans and Democrats have a field day debating which side is hurt more by this.

Consider the North Carolina contest between freshman Kay Hagan and State House Speaker Thom Tillis.  Polls have shown narrow leads for both candidates but a recent PPP survey should deeply concern the GOP.  When the race is between Tillis and Hagan she holds a 42%-39% lead.  But when Haugh is brought into the race Hagan’s vote share drops to 41% but Tillis’s drops sharply to 34%.  Polls that show Tillis leading usually exclude Haugh.

In another close contest in Arkansas pitting two term Senator Mark Pryor against Congressman Tom Cotton the race is neck and neck.  Two polls, Talk Business and Politics and PPP, show libertarian candidate Nathan Lefrance making a difference.  In both polls Cotton leads by a mere 2% while Lefrance takes 3%.  The PPP survey goes a step further and asks Lefrance supporters who they would back between Cotton and Pryor as their second choice.  The split is 43%-41% for Cotton.  In such a narrow race with few voters on the fence the few thousand votes the second choice preference represents could be the difference.

Republicans seem to have caught some breaks in Montana and West Virginia.  The Democratic Party is in disarray after appointed Montana Senator Jon Walsh suspended his campaign.  Libertarian nominee Roger Roots is unlikely to eat enough into Daines lead to make a difference in the contest.  In West Virginia, Congresswomen Shelley Moore Capito holds a commanding lead when all party nominees, Tennant (D), Bob Baber (Mt) and John Buckley (Libertarian), are put on the ballot.

Louisiana’s odd electoral rules may insulate the GOP from a third-party candidacy stealing voters.  The state runs a hybrid jungle primary and runoff system.  All candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ballot and if no candidate hits 50%+1 in November the top two vote getters advance to a winner take all election three weeks later.  The power of the two political parties ensure at least one of their nominees advance in statewide races.  Ironically, while this system benefits the GOP by eliminating third-party challenges (assuming nobody hits 50%+1) it also still leaves the possibility of an insurgent Republican candidate making it out of the pack.  Fortunately, Republicans are solidly behind Congressman Bill Cassidy. He is polling well ahead of his GOP counterparts and Senator Mary Landrieu is nowhere near 50%.

South Dakota is somewhat of an oddity.  The Libertarian Party nominee withdrew and the GOP nominated popular former Governor Mike Rounds.  Democrats nominated Rick Weiland, who is widely believed to be out of touch with voters.  But the GOP has to contend with two former Republicans running as Independents, former US Senator Larry Pressler and former South Dakota State Senator Gordon Howie.  So far polls show Rounds is well ahead though.

Republicans still run the risk of having a Tea Party challenger upset in the Alaskan primary (Joe Miller) on Aug. 19.  Even if the party gets Lt. Governor Sean Treadwell or former Bush official Dan Sullivan, the Libertarian party nominee (Mark Fish or Thom Walker) could ultimately hand the race to freshman Democrat Mark Begich.

Republicans have primarily been responsible for derailing their chances to take the majority in 2010 and 2012 (nominating or endorsing flawed candidates).  But this time, if Republicans fail to capture the Senate, it could be because third-party candidates stole enough disaffected Republican and Independent ballots to allow Democrats to keep their majority.

Addendum: I wrote this post after watching a Fox News report arguing third-party candidates could hurt the GOP this November.

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