As a Libertarian pizza deliverer looking to upset the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, long shot candidate Sean Haugh was bound to attract some attention.
The hotly contested race between Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis has drawn more outside spending than any other contest in the country, already drowning voters with slick television ads. So there is something refreshing about Haugh — who delivers his campaign message to voters via YouTube, often in a T-shirt, from his campaign manager's basement.
In this, his sixth bid for office, Haugh is running to end all wars, he says in the videos recorded by his campaign manager Rachel Mills, a former spokeswoman for retired U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He is a Libertarian because he knows he’s “not smart enough to run your life for you.” He thinks the death penalty should be one of the first policies to go. When talking about abortion, he says, “It really doesn’t matter how you feel about a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “It’s her body and her mind; she is the one who is going to make that choice.”
In each of the YouTube missives, he’s cracked open two or three craft beers that are lined up on the counter and sips from a glass bearing the image of Murray Rothbard, an economist of the Austrian School and hero of some in the Libertarian movement.
But it isn’t just Haugh’s offbeat style that is getting notice. As Nate Cohn wrote in a post on the Upshot blog last week, Haugh’s presence in the race has made it difficult to decipher how close the race is between the two leading candidates: Hagan, seeking her second term, and Tillis, the speaker of the state House.
Surveys by Public Policy Polling and Civitas that have included Haugh showed that he received the support of between 9% and 11% of voters. Given Haugh’s low profile, pollsters attribute those numbers to the fact that voters often choose a third-party candidate in surveys, even if they don’t plan to cast a ballot for them.
“If you look at approval ratings of Congress right now, they are at an all-time low, so people need a way to express themselves,” said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science and policy studies who directs the Elon University Poll. “Sometimes it feels good to say ‘I’m not going to vote for one of the two [major] candidates.’ ”
But Fernandez said that ultimately those voters were very unlikely to even go to the polls or, if they did, to “throw their vote away on a third party candidate.”
Even if voters are just selecting a random name, that could have an upside for Haugh. When deciding who gets to participate in an upcoming debate, the North Carolina Assn. of Broadcasters will permit the inclusion of any candidate who gets more than 10% in three polls nearest the day of the debate -- potentially giving Haugh a chance for greater publicity.
For now Haugh is trying to communicate with voters through his videos and his Facebook page. “As a general policy, I try to answer every question from individual NC voters,” the 53-year-old writes on Facebook, “but will ignore it if I smell astroturf.”
Haugh, who has served as executive director of the North Carolina Libertarian Party as well as political director of the national Libertarian Party, says the explosion of social media has given him enormous advantages compared with 2002, when he ran for Senate and won only 1.45% of the vote.
He decided to run this time, he said, because he couldn’t stand the idea of only having a Republican and Democrat as options on the 2014 ballot.
“I just wanted to be able to walk into the voting booth and to vote for something other than more violence, more war, more debt. I just wanted to vote for peace,” Haugh says in his "opening statement" YouTube video, above. “If you want to vote for me too, go right ahead.”
Haugh's video messages on his YouTube channel — where his profile picture bears the image of a cat — mix humor with serious policy pronouncements. On immigration, for example, Haugh says he’s for “open borders” and adds that many immigrants to the U.S. open restaurants, “which is awesome.” But he goes on to note that many immigrants are fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America that he views as a direct result of America’s “war on drugs” and “our messing with the internal affairs of other countries.” “I’m Sean Haugh, and I approve of the next taco truck I see,” he says in closing.
In his folksy biography on his campaign website, Haugh explains that he was born in Arizona, spent most of his childhood in Tulsa, Okla., attended college at Tufts University in Boston, then spent two years in New York City and moved to Durham twice (both times “to follow women”). While he settled permanently in Durham in 1988, “these travels have made my accent rather thick and a tad unusual,” he explains, “an amalgamation of the Oklahoma and Piedmont drawls with a dash of Brooklyn Yiddish.”
Though he describes his grandfather as a Goldwater Republican, his parents ultimately became Democrats and he says he was “raised to abhor violence and respect all people regardless of race or gender or anything else.” Libertarians, he says, only have two rules: “Don’t hit people and don’t take their stuff. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, what you do is your business.”
The flurry of attention to Haugh’s campaign this cycle has sometimes sent him scrambling to keep up. His voicemail message pleads for patience because he's "pretty busy these days." Last week he posted a last-minute appeal to “anybody local” who uses Skype — asking if he could come over that afternoon to do a television interview.
Haugh has not reported raising any money for his Senate run
, though his campaign is accepting bitcoin donations at his website and he says he recently cracked the $5,000 mark. But with the ability to get his message out via social media, he says he sees no reason to go "toe-to-toe" with Tillis' and Hagan's millions in the fundraising race.