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How Third-Party Candidates Could Screw Up The Midterms: A Primer

Can't get enough of this year's possible spoilers? Check out TNR's slideshow of some of the best (and most bizarre) third-party candidates who could sway some of the country's biggest elections.

One of the under-appreciated facts about the 2010 midterms is the sheer number of races that could be scrambled by third-party candidates. Quixotic Tea Party runs could thwart GOP gains in more than a dozen key House races. Former Republicans like Charlie Crist and Lisa Murkowski are foraging for votes without official party backing. The Green Party is doing its usual spoiler thing. This is already a bizarre election year, and the baffling array of aspirants running on minor-party tickets is only making it odder. So, to help sort through the mess, here's a rough taxonomy of this year's bumper crop of third-party candidates:

The spurned establishment Republican: These folks get the most attention. There's Crist down in Florida, trying—and struggling—to win a Senate seat after getting ousted in his GOP primary by Marco Rubio (who, once upon a time, was considered the most radical Republican Senate candidate… before Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell were beamed down from space). There's Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign in Alaska, which might actually work now that Tea Party standard-bearer Joe Miller is going haywire. In Rhode Island, everyone's favorite RINO, Lincoln Chafee, has left the GOP and could become the state's new governor as an Independent. And, in Minnesota, Tom Horner became disgusted with the Palinization of his party and decided to run for governor on the Independence Party ticket—and might well tip that race toward Democrat Mark Dayton.

The kamikaze Tea Partiers: There are about 20 House races around the country where the Republican candidate should, in theory, be cruising to victory—if not for the presence of a third-party Tea Party type scooping up right-wing votes. In Virginia's fifth district, for instance, Republican Robert Hurt is trying to unseat Tom Perriello, but the race has remained close because Jeffrey Clark, a local property inspector and Tea Party activist, is siphoning off conservative support. Hurt, for his part, has been assuring the base he's with them on things like "cutting or defunding agencies that have no constitutional basis." But it's still an open question whether Tea Partiers are going to vote strategically and pull the lever for the mainstream Republican—or whether they're feeling ornery enough to vote for the "purer" candidate even if it risks turning the seat blue.

Other examples: Virginia's second district, where former local GOP chair Kenny Golden refuses to end his third-party bid even if it risks tipping the race to Democrats (he's even gone so far as to savage the Republican front-runner, car dealer Scott Rigell, for participating in Cash-for-Clunkers). See also Michigan's first district, where "Citizen candidate" Glenn Wilson is polling as high as 12 percent and threatens to tarnish Republican chances there. (Wilson's campaign manager recently got so upset at Wilson's spoiler role that he quit in protest.) And, of course, there's the Nevada Senate race, where Tea Partier Scott Ashjian is waging a weird internecine war against Sharron Angle, helping out Democrat Harry Reid in the process.

The Manchurian candidate: Sometimes, when there's a third-party candidate muddling a race, conspiracy theories abound. In New Jersey's third congressional district, freshman Democrat John Adler is tied with Republican former Philadelphia Eagles linesman John Runyan. Meanwhile, a Tea Party candidate, Peter DeStefano, is polling around 6 percent and taking support away from Runyan—even though he's barely campaigned. New Jersey Republicans have asked the Federal Election Commission to figure out who's propping DeStefano up. (Adler's operatives are the prime suspects, naturally.) Likewise, in Pennsylvania's seventh district, Democrats actively worked to put tea party activist Jim Schneller on the ballot so as to draw votes away from the GOP. (That said, things still don't look good for the Democrat in that district.)

The holy-crap-he-might-actually-win candidate: Out in Colorado, famed xenophobe Tom Tancredo decided to run for governor on the Constitution Party ticket. It seemed like he'd have to be content to play a spoiler role… until nutty Republican candidate Dan Maes (who once warned that efforts to boost bike riding were a plot to put Denver under U.N. control) started fizzling out. Suddenly, there's a real chance Tancredo—the man who once dubbed Miami a Third World country—could surge ahead and take this thing.

The Green Party retreads: It's been awhile since a Green Party standard bearer has cost the Democrats a political win—the 2000 election seems to have chastened activists. But in the Illinois Senate race, LeAlan Jones is polling at around 5 percent and could cost Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias the seat in what should be a safe blue state. Dems are certainly worried enough that they've tried to enlist Obama to convince black voters in the state to vote Dem, rather than wasting their votes on the Greens. Note also that the Green candidate in the Illinois governor's race is cutting into Democrat Pat Quinn's support there.

The failed unity bid: One of the more topsy-turvy third-party campaigns has been in Massachusetts, where former Treasurer Tim Cahill (D) teamed up with former State Rep. Paul Loscocco (R) for a third-party gubernatorial ticket. Sweet, sweet unity? A David Broder fantasy come true? Nope! In early October, Loscocco reversed himself, withdrew from the race and threw his support to the Republican, former health care CEO Charles Baker. There's been plenty of speculation as to whether this was a devious Republican plot all along, although it's now looking like Democrat Deval Patrick may end up remaining governor anyway. Why's that? Because Massachusetts's unemployment levels are dropping. Third-party candidates can sometimes matter, but nothing swings elections quite like economic fundamentals.

(Flickr photo credit: JrodPS2)