The Slatest

The Crucial Races Where Third-Party Candidates Might Ruin Things for Republicans—or Democrats

Third-party candidates can absorb just enough votes to screw things up.

Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan stands in a crowd during a rally
Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan takes the stage during a rally in Aurora, Oregon. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images

We’re mere days away from the midterm elections, which means some of the tightest races in the country will finally see an outcome. Most of these races offer voters a choice between a Democrat or a Republican—but not all of them! A handful of states have races featuring a third-party candidate, some identifying as independents and others as libertarians. Though it’s incredibly rare for one of these types of candidates to win an election, they can absorb an impressive amount of votes—or at least an amount of votes that can screw things up for the other candidates. About 35 million registered voters identified themselves as independents, after all. So, yeah, the stakes could not be higher. Here’s a list of states that have competitive races and a third-party candidate that could shake things up:

Alaska

The Race: House
The Democrat: Mary Peltola
The Republican: Sarah Palin, Nicholas Begich III
The Libertarian: Chris Bye

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In one of only two states that employ ranked choice voting statewide, Alaska’s primary is guaranteed to be interesting. The most significant race in the state is arguably for its House seat, which incumbent Democrat Mary Peltola won in a special election back in August—a stunning victory for Democrats who haven’t held a House seat in Alaska in 50 years. Now Peltola is up against the same two Republicans she beat last time, former vice presidential candidate and state governor Sarah Palin and Nicholas Begich III. There’s also a fourth candidate in the race: Libertarian Chris Bye.

The circumstances of Alaska’s primary are unique given its ranked choice voting system, which allows the top four candidates to advance in an open primary. Candidates who earn the fewest votes are eliminated each round until one candidate gets 50 percent plus one of the votes. So far, it doesn’t seem like it’s the Libertarian who is doing the spoiling—it’s more like the two Republicans are spoiling it for each other. Slate’s Christina Cauterucci went to Alaska this fall, and has several detailed rundowns of how ranked choice is going up there, including why the Republicans haven’t been able to use the new system to their advantage.

Georgia

The Race: Senate
The Democrat: Raphael Warnock
The Republican: Herschel Walker
The Libertarian: Chase Oliver

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The state that is inundated with stories about abortions the supposedly pro-life Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has personally paid for is tight. Multiple polls have shown a neck-and-neck race, one showing incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock in a dead heat with Walker while another suggests Warnock has just a 3-point lead over Walker.

That means even a few stragglers that throw their support behind Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver could make the race tight enough to push the state into a runoff election— Georgia law requires an outright majority to win statewide office. That could be a repetition of 2020, with a historic runoff election that landed Warnock in his current Senate seat. Historically in Georgia, Libertarians have won 2 percent of the vote on average in governor and U.S. senate races.

Colorado

The Race: Senate
The Democrat: Michael Bennet
The Republican: Joe O’Dea
The Libertarian: Brian Peotter

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Colorado wasn’t initially expected to be a battleground state this election cycle, but Republican challenger Joe O’Dea decided to shake things up: O’Dea isn’t following the MAGA playbook, starting by admitting Joe Biden won the 2020 election. He’s also argued Donald Trump shouldn’t run again in 2024. Bennet still appears to have a 10-point lead over O’Dea, and Libertarian candidate Brian Peotter will likely only help, as he’s claiming about 4 percent of Colorado’s vote.

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Peotter acknowledged that he’s the spoiler candidate and is hoping to siphon off votes from O’Dea over the issue of abortion, since O’Dea has taken a moderate position on the issue by saying he would outlaw abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or medical necessity after 20 weeks. Peotter is pro-life and got an endorsement from Colorado Republican Rep. Ron Hanks, who said Peotter is the “only conservative on the ballot for U.S. Senate.”

Oregon

The Race: Governor 
The Democrat: Tina Kotek
The Republican: Christine Drazan
The Independent: Betsy Johnson

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Easily one of the most competitive races in the country, Oregon has been a consistent Democratic stronghold for years—the last Republican governor served back in 1987. That iron blue grip could be loosening this year, as Democrat Tina Kotek fights two candidates backed by billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight. He’s spent millions to support Republican Christine Drazan, and earlier on, was behind the independent candidate Betsy Johnson—previously a Democratic state senator who’s worked in the Oregon House and Senate for over 20 years.

That’s because Knight thinks the state is moving too far to the left and wants to do whatever he can to stop Kotek from winning. It could work—polls show that Kotek and Drazan are at an even tie while Johnson is earning just shy of 14 percent of Oregon’s votes. Unlike many other races, a recent Emerson College poll showed that Johnson has actually received more support from Democrats (she’s polling at 17 percent in the party) than Republicans (where she’s at 9 percent). In fact, Johnson has managed to outraise both Kotek and Drazan by bringing in $13.2 million in total contributions, and she’s strategically positioning herself between her opponents. She’s attacked Drazan for her anti-abortion stance while accusing Kotek of making Oregon “woke and broke.”

Pennsylvania

The Race: Senate
The Democrat: John Fetterman
The Republican: Mehmet Oz
The Libertarian: Erik Chase Gerhardt

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At this point, most people are aware of the heated Senate race happening in Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. But there is someone else on the ballot—Libertarian Erik Chase Gerhardt, and according to state polling, he’s earning about 2 percent of the vote.

One in five independents in Pennsylvania say they are still undecided on their Senate vote—though not many of them are going for Gerhardt, who has claimed just 6 percent of that vote. Still, Gerhardt could become a deciding factor in the state’s Senate race, as Fetterman holds a slight majority over Oz. Gerhardt tried to seize on the frenzy that took hold of the one and only debate between Fetterman and Oz by plugging himself: “If you’re upset or disgusted with the #PASenateDebate, let it be known that you have another option in November who will fight for your freedom and civil liberties.”

Nevada

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The Race: Senate
The Democrat: Catherine Cortez Masto
The Republican: Adam Laxalt
The Libertarian: Neil Scott
The Independent: Barry Lindemann

Considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the country, Catherine Cortez Masto is facing Republican Adam Laxalt and two third-party candidates, Libertarian Neil Scott and independent Barry Lindemann.

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Polling data in Nevada has been a mixed bag, with two polls showing Laxalt leading while a New York Times and Siena College poll showed Laxalt and Cortez Mastro at a virtual tie. That means even a few votes cast for Scott and/or Lindemann could throw the race. About 10 percent of Nevada voters indicated they were still unsure which Senate candidate they would vote for, while 5 percent said they wouldn’t vote for any of the candidates.

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Nevada has recently seen some pretty tight elections: Cortez Masto won her first election to the U.S. Senate in 2016 by 2 percentage points while both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton won Nevada with similar margins.

Wisconsin

The Race: Senate
The Democrat: Mandela Barnes
The Republican: Ron Johnson
The Independent: Scott Aubart

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A state currently slotted as a toss-up, Wisconsin’s Senate race is a heated campaign between Republican incumbent Ron Johnson and Democrat Mandela Barnes, plus third-party candidate Scott Aubart, who’s running under the American Independent Party.

Johnson and Barnes have been neck and neck in surveys, while independents seem to be split between the two candidates. Just 7 percent say they haven’t yet decided on their vote or are open to changing their mind. Meanwhile, Barnes’ campaign has been relentlessly attacked for his past progressive stances which include diverting funding from police departments.

New Hampshire

The Race: House
The Democrat: Maggie Hassan
The Republican: Don Bolduc
The Libertarian: Jeremy Kauffman

Incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan’s lead is narrowing against Republican challenger Don Bolduc, which could give the Libertarian candidate Jeremy Kauffman more power to sway the election’s outcome. Though Kauffman has only gotten about 5 percent of the vote in recent polling, another 5 percent of New Hampshire voters indicated they’re still undecided.

While one recent poll found Hassan leading 49 to 33 percent, another 6 percent chose Kauffman and 12 percent were undecided. Even small fluctuations away from Hassan could endanger her reelection prospects—in her last race, she won by just 1,000 votes.

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