Even political junkies might not be able to identify LeAlan Jones, Shawn Moody, Scott Ashjian and Ceci Iglesias, but all four could have a major effect on the political balance of power after Election Day.
They’re all running as third-party or independent candidates for office. It’s unlikely that any of them will emerge victorious Nov. 2, but given this year’s volatile political atmosphere, candidates polling in the low single digits can tip the scales in tight congressional and gubernatorial races.
“This is a good year for independents, given the political climate,” said Mr. Moody, who’s running as an independent for Maine governor.
Indeed, analysts who dismiss third-party candidates do so at their peril this year. In some races, the independents are doing better than the traditional candidates - witness the Senate race in Alaska with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who’s running as an independent after losing the Republican primary; the Colorado governor’s race, where American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman, is running ahead of the Republican candidate; and the Senate race in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, leads the Democratic nominee.
It’s clearly a good year for independents in Maine, where the governor’s race features three such candidates. Two of those — Mr. Moody and Eliot Cutler — are receiving significant support in the polls.
Mr. Cutler, who was an aide to Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, is attracting 19 percent of the vote, putting him squarely in the rearview mirror of Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, who has 20 percent. Mr. Moody holds 5 percent of the vote, while Republican Paul LePage is leading with 32 percent, according to a Critical Insights survey released Friday.
Fully 21 percent of voters are undecided, but Mr. Cutler appears poised to play spoiler by knocking Mrs. Mitchell out of contention. Mr. Moody, meanwhile, could be drawing votes from the Republican with his pro-small-business message.
“I saw two candidates representing the perimeters of their parties, and given that the largest voting bloc in Maine is ‘unenrolled,’ I felt there was a huge opening there,” Mr. Moody said. “You never know here, because the voters could split the vote in so many different ways.”
In California, Ms. Iglesias is running as an independent candidate for the Orange County congressional seat now held by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat. After 14 years in Congress, Mrs. Sanchez is facing perhaps her toughest challenge yet in Republican state Assemblyman Van Tran.
A Public Opinion Strategies poll released Oct. 15 shows Mrs. Sanchez and Mr. Tran tied at 39 percent, with Ms. Iglesias drawing 5 percent of the vote. Seventeen percent of voters are undecided.
Mr. Tran is benefiting from this year’s conservative tide and a couple of Sanchez gaffes, notably her claim on Spanish-language television that “the Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, [trying] to take this seat.”
But he’s also benefiting from the candidacy of Ms. Iglesias, a well-known community activist from Santa Ana who by all accounts is pulling votes that would have otherwise gone to Mrs. Sanchez.
Ms. Iglesias insists that’s not her intent. “The pro-Loretta blogs say I’m trying to divide the vote and take votes away from Loretta,” said Ms. Iglesias, who gathered the necessary 6,504 signatures to get on the ballot.
“But I’m not trying to take votes away from Loretta. We’re registering a lot of new voters, reaching out to people both parties haven’t been paying attention to,” she said.
At the same time, she acknowledges that her candidacy is rooted in dissatisfaction with Mrs. Sanchez’s tenure.
“The discontent that I see in the community — they were the ones who asked me to run because they don’t feel our needs have been represented for the last 14 years,” Ms. Iglesias said.
Another problem for the Democratic incumbent: Ms. Iglesias won the random drawing to determine which candidate’s name will be listed first, which means that she will appear ahead of Mrs. Sanchez and Mr. Tran.
The major-party candidates in the Senate race in Illinois each have their own third-party candidate to worry about. For Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, it’s Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones, who’s polling 4 percent of the vote. For Republican Mark Steven Kirk, it’s Libertarian Mike Labno, who’s holding steady at 3 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday.
Either one of the third-party candidates is poised to snare enough voters to decide the race. Currently, Mr. Kirk leads Mr. Giannoulias, but barely, by a margin of 42 percent to 40 percent, with 10 percent of voters undecided.
Most third-party candidates don’t find themselves the target of an ad campaign, but that’s not the case with Mr. Ashjian in Nevada.
Mr. Ashjian, who’s running as the Tea Party of Nevada candidate, has been attacked by the Tea Party Express for reputedly running a fake campaign to draw votes from Republican Sharron Angle.
“None of us has ever heard of you or even seen you at a tea party rally,” says the ad’s narrator. “We think you’re a fraud who’s trying to split the vote and help re-elect Harry Reid.”
Mr. Ashjian, who’s done multiple media interviews, insists that he’s running a legitimate campaign. It didn’t help his reputation when Patriot Majority, a pro-Reid group, began running radio ads attacking Mrs. Angle and emphasizing that Mr. Ashjian’s tea party candidacy.
“Scott Ashjian is still running against Angle and Harry Reid,” the ad says.
Polls show Mr. Reid and Mrs. Angle are locked in a statistical dead heat, with Mr. Ashjian garnering 2 percent of the vote. It’s not enough to win him the race, but it could be enough for Mrs. Angle to lose it.