Will 'tea party' backing for third-party candidates boost House Dems?
Third-party candidates with 'tea party' support stand to siphon votes from Republicans in as many as 20 House races.
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Most had no doubt preferred one of Senator Hurt's six primary-election opponents, but Hurt, seen as a moderate, carried the day districtwide. The big question now is whether Hurt has done enough to woo these conservatives, or whether some will vote Nov. 2 for a third candidate with "tea party" credentials – or not vote at all – and cost Hurt enough support to throw the win to the Democratic incumbent.
As the Republicans vie to take over the House, 12 to 20 seats could turn on the strength of third-party candidates, say independent analysts. Most sit to the right of the GOP nominees, and they could give Democrats a surprise 11th-hour assist in key races by fracturing the conservative vote, even a little. In a tight race – like the one in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District – 1 or 2 percent of the vote could tip the outcome.
"A tea party person running as a third-party candidate can make a big difference. They're the rising tide – the political faction that has the greatest amount of motivation and energy," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There's no question but that the tea party franchise in this election is a very valuable marketing tool, and anybody can lay claim to it and nobody can be denied it. That's what makes things unpredictable."
True, third-party candidates typically have no impact on the outcome – and their support often fades closer to Election Day as voters weigh casting a "wasted" vote. But the tea party is a wild card this year – and some third-party contestants are interested mainly in advocating their reform agendas and may not much care whether Republicans take over the House.
Inside Virginia's Fifth District
Republicans in rural Greene County liked Ross Perot and loved Sarah Palin: The party's last two pig roasts featured a life-size Palin cardboard cutout. In the June primary, many backed tea party candidate Jim McKelvey, who waited nearly two months before supporting Hurt. Hurt had voted in 2004 for a $1.38 billion tax increase – a move many conservatives saw as indefensible.
But Nov. 2 is nearing and, with it, so are prospects that divisions in GOP ranks could send Rep. Tom Perriello (D) back to the House of Representatives, help Nancy Pelosi remain speaker, and allow President Obama's agenda to advance. That, too, is indefensible, some here say.