Spoiler alert: As both Democrats Republicans calculate their odds of a Senate majority, several third party candidates are complicating their math.
Popular dissatisfaction with both parties — and bitter campaigns that are driving up candidates’ negatives on both sides — have helped boost third-party candidates in a number of states into the high single digits.
It’s not that common that third-party candidates can sway an election, and they often fare much better in early polls than on election day as “protest voters” come home to the major parties or stay home.
But there are precedents.
National Democrats quietly sent mailers boosting Montana Libertarian Senate candidate Dan Cox in 2012. He pulled nearly seven percent of the vote as Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) defeated Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) by just four points.
Voters in Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election were disgusted with both major-party candidates, especially with Republican Ken Cuccinelli. As a result, libertarian Robert Sarvis took seven percent of the vote, and now-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won by less than three points.
Then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to bolt from the GOP and run as an independent Senate candidate in 2010 badly divided the state’s Democrats, giving now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) an easy path to victory.
It’s unclear whether any third-party candidates will throw an election one direction or the other this cycle. But strategists in both parties are keeping an eye on them.
“We're talking about eight or nine races out there that could potentially be within the margin of error,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “In most cases a third-party candidate is probably not helpful to the Republican Party but there are a few places where it's been a benefit,”
Here are six races where third-party candidates could have a real impact on the election.