“All these people are saying I’m costing Kay Hagan or Thom Tillis the election,” Sean Haugh told me as he sipped a glass of Duck-Rabbit beer on Tuesday night. “It’s like it’s somehow my fault that they’re terrible candidates.”
Haugh (pronounced "haw"), the Libertarian candidate in North Carolina’s Senate race, has drawn an increasing amount of attention this summer and fall as the quirky pizza deliveryman and craft beer aficionado who could potentially determine control of the U.S. Senate. Since the end of September, Democratic senator Kay Hagan’s lead over Republican Thom Tillis has dwindled in the RealClearPolitics polling average from nearly 5 points to just 1 point. That slim margin makes it ever more plausible that Haugh, who’s now garnering 5 percent in the RCP polling average, could play a decisive role in the North Carolina Senate race, and hence control of the Senate.
Will Haugh’s support fade away and give Tillis the edge on Election Day? Or will he scoop up enough of the remaining undecided voters to seal Hagan’s victory? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but on the ground in North Carolina there’s no sign of a surge in support for Haugh.
“This is great,” said one of the Durham County Libertarians when a waitress had to move their regular meeting at a local bar to a back room in order to accommodate a larger-than-usual crowd on Tuesday night. “There are so many people here.” By my count, 13 people were gathered. That included Haugh, his campaign manager, two members of the foreign press (one from Austria and one from Poland), and me. A more heavily-publicized event the night before didn’t do much better: Haugh told me “24 or 25” people ponied up $30 each to spend the evening drinking beer and talking politics with him.
But judging Haugh’s support based on turnout at public events might misunderstand and underestimate the Sean Haugh phenomenon. Haugh has become well known for his virtual campaign, which consists of a series of YouTube videos in which he drinks craft beer and discusses libertarian politics. The typical video gets just 1,000 to 2,000 views, but the shtick has helped him get a lot more attention in the mainstream media, including a profile in the Washington Post and appearances on national cable news networks.
Media attention probably doesn’t explain the Libertarian’s above-average support in the polls either: Haugh was getting 10 percent to 11 percent in the polls before the media began paying attention to him and only a few hundred people had seen his videos. What really seems to be driving support for Haugh is disapproval of national Democrats, like Kay Hagan and Barack Obama, as well as the GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature, where Thom Tillis is the speaker of the House of Representatives.
A recent NBC News/Marist poll showed that voters overwhelmingly disapprove of President Obama’s job performance (40 percent approve and 55 percent disapprove), and only 41 percent have a favorable impression of Kay Hagan. But just 40 percent have a favorable impression of Tillis. So the race is deadlocked. According to Marist, Tillis and Hagan were tied at 43 percent, with Haugh taking 7 percent, and 6 percent of voters undecided. Earlier this month, the American Future Fund released a TV ad designed to push some Hagan supporters or Hagan-leaning undecided voters tried into the Haugh camp. In the cheesy spot, milennials awkwardly chant “Get Haugh, get high!” and “More weed, less war: Vote Sean Haugh!"
“It’s kind of absurd,” Haugh said of the ad on Tuesday night. “It’s like they took me and put me into Google Translate and translated me into another language and then back to English. So it’s kind of off-key, but I keep coming back to the fact that they are accurately representing my message and giving people all kinds of positive reasons to vote for me and to vote Libertarian.”