Excluded from debates, left off the polls, ignored by the news media, or dismissed by the public as a "wasted vote," minor-party candidates could tip a few key races in next week's midterm elections – or win them outright.
From the Mountain States, where a virtual unknown is polling 10 percent and just snagged four newspaper endorsements for a US House race, to the coasts of New England, where two independents are poised to win bids to the US Senate, un-red and not-blue candidates are testing how deep the dissatisfaction with the two main parties is running.
"We're really not used to thinking about third parties in midterm elections, but there is a lot of push away from the major parties," says political scientist Ron Rapoport, coauthor of "Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence."
This year, 425 minor-party candidates are running for a US House, Senate, or governor's seat, according to Project Vote Smart. About 80 percent of voters will be able to vote for a Libertarian for statewide office, 60 percent for a Green Party candidate, and 30 percent for a Constitution Party candidate, says Richard Winger, who tracks minor-party candidates and issues for Ballot Access News. Reform Party candidates are on statewide ballots in Florida and Colorado.
In 2002, 5.2 percent of all voters voted for some candidate other than a Republican or Democrat at the top of the ballot (usually governor or senator). That's the highest result for a midterm election since 1934. "This year will be up," Mr. Winger predicts. "More and more high-quality people are willing to run as minor-party candidates for public office."
Some are already big names. Running as an independent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut is expected to hold his Senate seat after losing the Democratic primary by staking out middle ground between the two main parties. Independent Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont is also expected to win his bid for the Senate – the first time since the mid-1970s that the Senate would have two independents concurrently.
"It's rare for there to be more than one independent in the US Senate," says Betty Koed, assistant historian of the Senate Historical Office. The last time the Senate had more than two independents was in the late 1890s, when five Populists, five Silver Republicans, and two members of the Silver Party served.
Independent candidates could tip the outcome in at least three close House races next week. In Indiana's Ninth District, Libertarian Eric Schansberg's candidacy is expected to help the Democrat, former Rep. Baron Hill, in his bid to oust GOP Rep. Mike Sodrel. And Independent John Binkowski could tip the race between Patty Wetterling and state Sen. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota's Sixth District. In an unexpectedly close race in Arizona's Fifth District, Libertarian Warren Severin could sway the race between Democratic challenger Harry Mitchell and embattled incumbent Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction, obviously, among Libertarian voters among the Republicans, but not much enthusiasm for Democrats," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. In races such as Arizona's Fifth, "it makes it hard to figure out who [the Libertarian candidate] is hurting."
Third-party candidates polling in single digits could also tip close US Senate races in Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee.
Running colorful gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, independents Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn have held onto double-digit ratings throughout their campaign to challenge the front-runner, GOP Gov. Rick Perry.
For Colorado Reform Party candidate Eric Eidsness, a high point of his US House race came last month. He was the target of an attack ad, with incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R). "It showed I was beginning to count," he says.
A former Reagan administration official, he got into the race because he says he was tired of how Republicans used "the fear factor" to win elections. "People are smart. People know the truth when they hear it. If we agree on a problem, we can fix it," he says.
Victory is a long shot. But four local newspapers have endorsed his candidacy and Mr. Eidsness is polling about 10 percent of likely voters.