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How third-party candidates could disrupt Election Day outcomes

Democrats and Republicans are eyeing at least 10 races where independent and third-party candidates could help swing the outcome on Election Day. Judy Woodruff talks to Jonathan Martin of The New York Times about which contests to watch and what it says about the state of two-party politics.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And in North Carolina, the libertarian on the ballot could help tip the result. Across the country, in at least 10 races, both parties are wondering what effect independent and third-party candidates will have.

    Where do they have a chance at winning and where are they just spoilers? And what does it say about our politics when so many of these candidates are getting significant support in the polls even without campaigning?

    Well, here to help answer some of those questions is Jonathan Martin of The New York Times, who's been reporting on many of these candidates.

    Welcome back to the NewsHour, Jonathan Martin.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN, The New York Times:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, which states are we looking at, are you looking at when it comes to third-party or independent candidates?

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Well, the most important one is Kansas, Judy, where you have got Greg Orman, who is an independent running against longtime Senator Pat Roberts out there, who is Republican.

    And this race is very competitive. And it's crucial, I think the most crucial race involving a third-party candidate, because if the Democrats do lose six seats, which would ostensibly give the GOP a majority, but Senator Roberts loses his race, then control of the Senate could be in the hands of Greg Orman, who is a businessman who has never served in office before who could decide the fate of the Senate.

    He has not said, Judy, which party he's caucusing with. He has said that he will not support Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid, the two Senate leaders. So, if we have a result next Tuesday where this comes down to one state where a third-party candidate could be really crucial, Kansas is the one to watch.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Could make a big difference.

    So Kansas is one. But there are some other states where you have libertarian candidates, North Carolina, where Gwen was.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Yes, there are. Which is a very important one.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    The others are where there are more spoilers, I would say.

    North Carolina comes to mind when you have got a libertarian there who looks to be taking about 5 percent right now in the polls. That could be really important in a close race, and especially depending upon where those votes come from. Are they coming from the conservative side or the more liberal side?

    The other one to watch is the Florida governor's race, again, one of these really competitive races. People don't like either candidate, quite frankly. Is there some kind of a protest vote, where they just go with a third-party to sort of stay a pox on both your houses?

    And then last one I would is the Maine governor's race, where you have got a pretty significant third-party candidate running there who is taking votes mostly from a Democrat, who I think otherwise would be in command of this race.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, it's not — in every case, it's not one party that is suffering from these candidates. It varies.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    That's exactly right. It sure does.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, tell us why — you wrote a few weeks ago. I saw story you wrote. And you said there is an unusually large number of these candidates this year. Why is that?

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Yes. Yes.

    Well, I think it's because people are so fed up with Washington and with politics right now that they want to go out on their own. Some of them doing it because they have ideological passions. But I think others are doing it because they truly are unhappy with the two-party system. Now, it's politics. There is also opportunism. And so I think some folks see that there is a better path to win or a path to be viable if you're not sort of tagged with either party label.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Talk about how the major parties are dealing with — I was just…

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    … Rand Paul, who is beloved by libertarians, has been in Kansas, which we were just talking about, appealing, saying he's voting for Pat Roberts, who is the Republican.

    What are the Republicans doing and what are the Democrats doing?

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Right.

    Well, the Republicans are trying to sort of water down some of these libertarian candidates who they fear would take votes from the Republican candidates in the states. And they're doing that by deploying people like Rand Paul, who have a following with libertarians, doing both retail campaign events in the state, also airing TV ads where sort of Rand Paul tries to appeal to libertarians.

    In Maine, Republicans are even airing an ad which touts the third-party candidate, because they know the better he does, the more votes that takes from the Democrat. So, there's a bit of trickery going on. The Democrats, it's a little bit different. I think right now, they're trying to be careful in Kansas, because while they that Mr. Orman, the independent, would caucus with them, they don't want to come out too hard for him, because that would sort of make him more the de facto Democratic nominee. So, they're being quiet there mostly.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, is there a sense, Jonathan Martin, that these races — if, say, Kansas were to go to the independent, how much difference does that make in the Senate?

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Yes.

    It just depends upon how big of a night the Republicans have next week. Are they going to pick up eight seats next week? Is Georgia going to a runoff? There are so many unanswered questions that we don't know yet, but here is where it could be really crucial.

    If the Republicans do not have that big of a night, if they pick up some seats, but it's not a wave-type year, then the Kansas race becomes really crucial, because then the question is, well, is the Senate 50-50? Is it 51-49? And if it's that kind of scenario where Joe Biden could break the tie or if you could get a party switcher, then somebody like Mr. Orman in Kansas becomes really crucial.

    And in some ways, there's a bit of poetic justice to all this, because at a time when people are so unhappy with American politics and so unhappy with the two parties, you could have an independent empowered to really come to Washington and try to shake things up.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, as you mentioned, in couple of states, these independent or libertarian candidates could throw this — throw the races into a runoff, delaying whether — if we know how the Senate…

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    That's, Judy, the key factor in the Georgia Senate race, where you have got a libertarian on the ballot who won't probably get more than 7 percent on Election Day. But that could be a heck of a lot of votes and force that race in to a runoff, which, by the way, wouldn't be until January, after the next Congress begins.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The week of New Year's.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Overtime.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jonathan Martin of The New York Times, we thank you.

  • JONATHAN MARTIN:

    Thank you, Judy.

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