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Libertarian pizza guy could determine North Carolina's Senate race

A quirky third party candidate in North Carolina just might determine which party controls the United States Senate.
Libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, is running for the US Senate from North Carolina.
Libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, is running for the US Senate from North Carolina.

RALEIGH, North Carolina -- Sean Haugh, the Libertarian candidate for North Carolina's Senate seat, had a busy schedule on Wednesday. By the time he met msnbc for breakfast at 10 a.m. he had already appeared remotely on Fox News, taped a segment with ABC and held a separate breakfast meeting with another reporter. He had an interview with Voice of America lined up for the afternoon.

Things got easier in the evening, though. That's when Haugh, 53, works his regular job as a pizza delivery guy in Durham.

“It’s a nice break from campaigning,” he told msnbc over tea. “I can fold boxes, deliver pizzas and clear my head for awhile.”

For now, though, he was still in candidate mode. That meant trading the pizza guy outfit for a pinstriped suit, blue shirt and red power tie while he spread the gospel of small government.

Why is there so much attention on this quirky third party candidate with a $10,000 war chest? He just might determine which party controls the United States Senate.

North Carolina’s Senate race is one of the most expensive, brutally fought contests in the country as Democrats try to push Sen. Kay Hagan across the finish line against Republican Thom Tillis, the state speaker of the House. The two candidates have been blanketing the airwaves with attack ads for months, and polls have shown both are unpopular with voters even as Hagan holds a narrow lead. That has created an opening for Haugh, who draws support from an average 5% of voters in recent polls – easily enough to swing a close election.

Not only that, Haugh is about to get his biggest opportunity yet to woo disaffected voters. He’ll face off with Hagan and Tillis in a Senate debate Thursday sponsored by local station WECT and the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear. It’s the only debate of the cycle to feature Haugh, who usually relies on YouTube videos to get his anti-war, anti-debt message out.

“’Stop all war’ is my main issue,” he said. “Our enemies in the Middle East are armed to the teeth with our weapons and training and now we're trying to find these mythical so-called moderate Syrian rebels ... the average person looks at this and sees we already fought this same war twice.”

Foreign policy has become a prominent issue in the campaign, with Tillis running ads accusing Hagan of underestimating ISIS and Hagan responding with an ad of her own calling the accusation "outrageous." Both candidates support airstrikes against the group, although they differ on arming Syrian rebels: Hagan was an early supporter of the idea, while Tillis has said he is unsure based on the same concerns Haugh raised.

Other policies Haugh is running against include “militarization of police,” “militarization of the border,” and “anything that involves killing people as government policy.” 

“When I talk about stopping all war, I include the culture war too,” he said. “We cast so many things in the metaphor of war.”

While his pizza job gives him a catchy hook with voters, it’s not the full story of his career. Haugh’s a seasoned and articulate political activist who previously served as the executive director of the state Libertarian Party. 

Neither Hagan nor Tillis aides are discussing his campaign, but the conventional wisdom is that Republicans have more to fear if he matches his current showing in the polls on Election Day. Tillis already fought off a tough challenge from the libertarian right in the Republican primary from Greg Brannon, a relatively fringe candidate who nonetheless drew high-profile support from Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

Paul visited the state last week to back up Tillis, whom he has since endorsed. BuzzFeed described an exchange during his trip in which the Kentucky lawmaker convinced a libertarian fan planning to vote for Haugh to switch her support to Tillis. 

“I like Rand Paul a lot,” said Haugh, whose campaign manager Rachel Mills served as Ron Paul's press secretary in Congress. “I’ve made my peace with the fact that Rand’s running for president and is going to go try to do all the ‘good Republican’ things to try and neutralize and even gain the support of the Republican establishment.”

Haugh called Tillis “unelectable” based on his high negatives in polls, but he doesn’t believe his campaign draws votes predominantly from either major party. Within the complex world of libertarian subcultures, he identifies with the more left-leaning side, not the right wing iteration that produced Brannon. He cites Barry Goldwater and Martin Luther King, Jr. as his twin idols growing up in Arizona, where his parents were liberal and his grandfather, John Haugh, served as the Republican speaker of the House.

If Haugh manages to pull off a strong performance on Nov. 4, he won’t be the only surprise candidate to do so. In two other states Republicans won in 2012, Kansas and South Dakota, independent Senate candidates are giving Republicans a late scare not as potential spoilers but as legitimate threats to win, suggesting the toxic partisan climate this year may be giving outsiders an unusually strong appeal. 

“I’m trying to speak on behalf of the average voter who sees that my opponents are really just corporate special interest candidates,” Haugh said. “People all across the political spectrum are looking for an alternative to that.”