From a media standpoint, one nice thing about third-party candidates is that they often make for good stories.
Candidates who don't have the major party committees overseeing their every move often feel free to flout the conventions of traditional campaigning.
Of course, another way of saying the same thing is that some of these candidates are just plain wacky.
Beyond that, however, even when they have little or no chance of winning themselves, these candidates make it possible for major-party contenders in close races to win with just a plurality of the vote.
In listing all the notable third-party candidates this cycle, we've ranked them here in order of the likelihood that they will have some effect on the outcome, even if only at the margins, and also with an eye toward good possible color.
1. Minnesota governor
State Senator Roger Moe (DFL) State Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R) Former Rep. Tim Penny (Independence Party) Ken Pentel (Green)
Former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny "has a good chance to win his race," wrote top political reporter David Broder in July.
Penny, we should note, is now a member of Jesse Ventura's Independence Party — a third-party candidate. Why is his potential victory cemented in Broderian prose?
Minnesota's two established political parties are weaker than they've ever been. The Democrat-Farmer-Labor party's base --farmers and labor — has either dwindled, in the case of the former, or matured, in the case of the latter. Blue-collar workers are as likely to choose Republican candidates as they are Democrats.
Meanwhile, the state Independent-Republican party has tacked to the right in recent elections. And the state's caucus-endorsement-nomination system ensures that activists within the party have greater sway over the nominees than rank-and-file voters. Often, candidates are chosen who are too beyond the mainstream for much of the state's electorate.
In this case, the major party nominees are not so extreme as they are not particularly strong or exciting, and that gives Penny an opening, making him the only minor-party candidate or independent on our list with a legitimate chance to win.
Ventura's legacy as an upset winner arguably will be stronger than his legacy as governor. Penny, on the other hand, is known statewide; has a wonkish policy background; is popular, affable, and moderate; and is earning enormous free media.
And Ventura's endorsement didn't hurt, though the degree to which it will help is not clear.
Like Ventura, Penny is a penny-pincher. He's also a decided centrist on cultural and social issues. He spent 12 years in Congress representing Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. His current running mate, another party-switcher (from Republican to Independence Party), is more liberal than he is, which helped assuage concerns that Penny might be too conservative for the party's moderate base.
The Green Party, which helped Ralph Nader get more than 126,000 votes in the state in 2000, has tapped Ken Pentel, a self-styled activist from Minneapolis, to run for governor. Though Pentel in 1998 got just over 7,000 votes (with $17,000 spent), party officials hope to capitalize on another three-way race.
This year, Pentel hopes to get public funding and predicts, without embellishment, that he will at least double his vote total from last time.
2. Wisconsin governor
Gov. Scott McCallum (R) Attorney General Jim Doyle (D) Ed Thompson (Libertarian)
Thompson is the brother of HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson — himself, of course, a former longtime governor of the state. Ed Thompson got into politics four years ago when he waged a public campaign against state gambling laws. (His house of video poker had been raided.) He supports a thin version of the Libertarian platform: medical marijuana, lower taxes, less burdensome regulation, and school choice.
Thompson owns Mr. Ed's Tee Pee Supper Club in Tomah, and is currently the mayor of that small city.
Depending on who asks the question and how, Thompson polls as high as 10 percent in a three-way general election race with McCallum and Doyle. And Wisconsin does have same-day voter registration, which lends itself to late-October populist upswings — just ask Jesse Ventura. Thompson is outspoken, colorful, and likable — all in contrast with McCallum, who is seen by the media, and by many voters, as stand-offish.
Incidentally, there are three other minor candidates whose names might appear on the ballot, pending the result of the primaries and their signature gathering requirements.
3. New York governor
Gov. George Pataki (R) State Comptroller Carl McCall (D) Tom Golisano (I)
Arguably, Tom Golisano is the most well-known of all the independent or third-party candidates listed here, but his possible impact on the New York gubernatorial race is unknown at the moment because of the steps Pataki has taken to shore up his standing even among Democrats.
On September 10, Golisano won a very nasty battle with Pataki to get the Independence Party nomination, securing his spot on the November ballot. He told the New York Times that he'll spend as much as he needs to win — perhaps as much as $70 million, much of which will be targeted toward the moderate-to-conservative voter group which typically is Pataki's base.
Golisano's camp, however, promises to run negative ads against both Pataki and Democrat McCall.
Make no mistake: this is a three-way race, if only because both major-party candidates will certainly acknowledge, in their strategy and tactics, Golisano's presence.
Given the complexities of New York politics, for now we will continue to defer judgment on how much of a factor Golisano will be in this race.
Golisano's campaign faltered a bit when his original running mate, Daniel Mahony, revealed that he actually lived in Connecticut. Mahony is also being investigated for voting twice in the 2000 elections. Golisano has run for governor twice before. He's being helped this time by Republican operative Roger Stone.
4. Minnesota Senate
Senator Paul Wellstone (D) Former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R) Ray Tricomo(Green) Jim Moore (Independence Party)
The two major-party contenders, Wellstone and Coleman, are pretty much neck-and-neck and likely to stay that way through election day.
Green Party candidate Ray Tricomo won a contested primary against Ed McGaa, though he only received a little more than 3400 votes.
Also worth mentioning is Independence Party candidate Jim Moore, a banker. Moore is campaigning on a promise to bring efficiency government and for social justice; his heroes are Learned Hand, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela.
Some Democrats believe that a strong showing by fellow Independence Partier Tim Penny will enhance Moore's status and bring him a higher percentage of the progressive vote, which would hurt Wellstone. It could also be argued that Moore will draw anti-incumbent votes away from Coleman.
5. Iowa governor
Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) Attorney Doug Gross (R) Jay Robinson (Green) Clyde Cleveland (Libertarian)
Robinson does not expect to make too much of a difference, and told us he wasn't urged by the state Democratic party to withdraw from the race until last month, when it became apparent that their incumbent, Vilsack, will face a tough challenge from Gross.
Robinson has revved up his campaign and is trying to build a statewide organization, but the locus of his strength remains in liberal Ames and in Des Moines. There is no reliable data on Iowa's Greens, but Ralph Nader got about 30,000 votes in 2000, more than enough to cover the spread between candidates Gore and Bush.
Libertarians in Iowa believe that candidate Cleveland could tip the race, but he got in too late to attract attention and hasn't made much of a splash.
Incidentally, the Iowa Greens are also running a candidate for US Senate, Tim Harthan.
6. Maine governor
Businessman and former legislator Peter Cianchette (R) Congressman John Baldacci (D) Jonathan Carter (Green Independent Party)
Of the 21 states where Greens enjoy full-time ballot status, party leaders are most excited about their prospects in Maine and New Mexico. Their candidate in Maine, Jonathan Carter, has the twin blessings of statewide popularity and a bushel of money.
The Green Independent Party was born in Maine in 1984 and has headed up several successful ballot initiative drives. Carter, an organic food farmer and environmental forester, ran for governor in 1998 and got 7 percent of the vote. Back then, he had only $25,000 to spend. This year, thanks to his status as a Clean Election candidate, he'll get at least $900,000.
Incumbent Gov. Angus King, an independent, is not eligible to run for re-election. Baldacci is viewed as the frontrunner in this race, but Carter could siphon some votes from him. In late April, state Democrats challenged Carter's right to the Clean Elections money, and the subsequent publicity alerted the Maine media to Carter's candidacy.
Still, Carter hovers at between two and six percent in the polls, despite the fact that he is perhaps as well known as either Baldacci or Cianchette. He has gained attention most recently by suggesting that the state raise taxes to cover a budget shortfall. The belief — Carter calls it a stereotype — that the Green Party is a gaggle of unelectable leftists seems to persist, even within an electorate that has elected two independent governors before.
7. Vermont governor
Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (D) State Treasurer Jim Douglas (R) Cornelius Hogan (Independent)
How could a man who has never before held public office, is not a native Vermonter, and is not running on a major-party ticket be considered a serious contender for the governorship of Vermont? Cornelius "Con" Hogan gets those questions a lot.
Back when he was 29, Hogan was deputy commissioner of corrections under one governor, then worked on prison-related issues under another, and later served as commissioner of corrections under Gov. Richard Snelling (R).
Hogan then was asked by Snelling in 1990 to serve as secretary of the housing services agency. When Snelling died suddenly, his successor, Gov. Howard Dean (D), kept Snelling's cabinet in place, and Hogan stayed on for nine years. He has also served as chair of the Vermont Health Care Authority and as president and CEO of a local business.
Hogan also has the "big" personality that can help third-party candidates make a real impression in any statewide race.
The bald-headed Hogan has a white beard and a jolly smile and has served for two decades as banjo picker and tenor singer for Cold Country, a close-knit, five-piece bluegrass band. Those are all things that make the 60-year-old Hogan stand out as a candidate — and he's being taken seriously enough to be included in debates with the two major-party candidates.
And in a state like Vermont, where the state legislature selects the next governor if no candidate can capture a majority of votes on election day, the introduction of even a moderately strong third-party candidate can have a major impact on the election.
8. New Mexico governor
State Rep. John Sanchez (R) Former Energy Secreyary and former Congressman Bill Richardson (D) David Bacon (Green) Russell Means (Independent Coalition Party)
Call it attempted political payola: Republicans in this state tried to give the Green Party $100,000 to mount competitive races in several US House districts. Democrats responded with an offer (the price tag isn't known) that would have kept the Greens from fielding a gubernatorial candidate, which would have helped their own top of the ticket. Both parties pounced in July when a technicality threatened to keep the Green candidate off the ballot.
The nervousness among both major parties is somewhat understandable. Ralph Nader got 21,000 votes here in 2000, and Al Gore won the state by about 300, and Democrats have been hurt in several state and federal races here of late by the existence of Green candidates on the ballot.
Bacon is a self-described "clean energy activist" who was born and raised in Santa Fe. He supports a "Marshall Plan" for poor inner cities and a single-payer health plan for the undercovered.
Also to note: American Indian Means is running on land grant claims for New Mexicans. Land belonging to Mexico belongs instead to New Mexicans, he believes.
9. California governor
Gov. Gray Davis (D) Businessman Bill Simon (R) Peter M. Cameho (Green)
Back when the race between Davis and Simon was closer, Camejo looked like a plausible spoiler. He still may take away from Davis some Los Angeles-area Latino and ultra-liberal votes, but probably not enough to cost Davis the seat.
He'll also be in the news around election day because he'll likely be left out of the gubernatorial debates — Davis doesn't want to draw a contrast with a more liberal candidate (Simon's camp wants Camejo in).
Born in Venezuela, Camejo is a genuine 60's radical, a former socialist presidential candidate, and now an investment banker who drives a convertible. He's been a statewide figure for years; Ronald Reagan once listed him among the "10 most dangerous" people in the state for his radical activism.
The general thrust of Camejo's message is that Davis has abandoned progressives and liberals. Camejo has secured the endorsement of a few prominent Hispanic leaders in the state, and he's going full-bore after that segment of the vote: his campaign tells us he wants to get at least 20 to 30 percent.
He'll spend lots of time in San Francisco, where he'll stump with newly elected Green city supervisor Matt Gonzales. And he's reportedly talked with representatives of the California Teachers Association, whose leaders had a public falling out with Davis.
In 2000, Ralph Nader got 418,000 votes in California. He has stumped for Camejo, and an adviser says he'll do it again before the election.
10. Massachusetts governor
Democratic nominee TBD (primary is September 17) Businessman Mitt Romney (R) Jill Stein (Green) Carla Howell (Libertarian)
Stein, a 52-year-old physician from Lexington, is best known for her environmental advocacy and her work for Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign.
Voters in the Bay State approved a Clean Elections law in 2000, setting up a mechanism to fund candidates who adhered to strict campaign contribution limits.
But Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran, a Democrat, said the state didn't have enough money to fund the program. Earlier this year, the state's top court forced the legislature to sell its own possessions (furniture, etc.), to try to build a cash reserve for qualified candidates.
Stein's campaign looked to be the chief beneficiary, and the resulting publicity and ill will widened the chasm between Massachusetts Greens and Massachusetts Democrats. Stein wound up not getting enough signatures to qualify for the public funding.
Because Republican Mitt Romney is running strongly in this heavily Democratic state, Democrats will need every liberal to turn out in favor of their nominee come election day. But Ralph Nader got 173,000 votes here, and Stein counts on at least half of them to vote for her. Republican Paul Cellucci beat Democrat Scott Harshbarger for governor by just 65,000 votes in 1998.
Romney, meanwhile, will most likely lose votes to Carla Howell, an articulate Libertarian who received 12 percent of the statewide vote against Senator Ted Kennedy in 2000 (though Republicans did not field a credible challenger to Kennedy that year, so Howell likely picked up some GOP votes). Howell also is leading the statewide campaign for a ballot imitative to repeal the state income tax, and her campaign expects to be able to run a series of television ads in the waning days.
Depending on which Democrat secures the nomination and how they run against Romney, either one of these third-party candidates could tip the race.
11. Illinois governor
Congressman Rod Blagojevich (D) Attorney General Jim Ryan (R) Cal Skinner (Libertarian) Marisellis Brown (Independent)
A lesson for the two major parties: if you want the press to ignore a third-party candidate, don't do anything to draw attention to that candidate.
Take the case of the Libertarian Skinner: Republicans tried to keep him off the ballot by challenging his signatures. Elections officials found that Skinner's petitions for candidacy was indeed valid. Republicans said that a bout of fraud in 1998 provoked their contest. The press reported the snafu, and Skinner's campaign got a bump.
On the other hand, the Chicago Sun Times reported that another independent candidate, Vietnam veteran Lloyd Meltz, managed to quality without submitting a single valid signature. Or a single signature at all. No one bothered to object.
Skinner served 14 terms in the Illinois House, representing Lakewood as a Republican. Previously, he was a federal government employee in the senior executive service. He says he left the GOP in 2000 because he found its message to be muddled by political compromise. Besides, he says, in his heart, he's always been a Libertarian.
Skinner knows he'll probably take votes from Ryan. The last gubernatorial race here was decided by less than two points — less than what Skinner polls today. He also knows he won't win. He wants to establish the party's credentials in the state as an alternative political organization for "leave us alone" Republicans.
12. Oregon Senate
Senator Gordon Smith (R) Secretary of State Bill Bradbury (D) Lou Mabon (Constitution)
Mabon, a cultural conservative known for spearheading anti-gay rights and pro-life ballot initiatives, ran for Senate in 1996 as a Republican, losing to Smith in the primary. Smith's support for ENDA, the employment non-discrimination act that would bar private businesses from unduly discriminating against gays, prompted Mabon to enter this race as a Constitution Party candidate.
Smith professes not to care.
Bradbury's still under funded candidacy has gotten some help: Democrats in Washington and interested groups like the Sierra Club, for example, have diverted some funds to the race. And former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have campaigned on Bradbury's behalf.
As a result, Mabon's candidacy could make a difference in the outcome, if Bradbury can put the race in play.
An aside: national gay rights organizations HATE Mabon, but they're not going to get involved in this race because both Smith and Bradbury are generally supportive of their agenda.
Also worth noting: Libertarians are running Dan Fitzgerald, a physician.
13. Oregon governor:
Former state supreme court justice Ted Kulongowski (D) Former state legislator Kevin Mannix (R) Tom Cox (Libertarian)
Cox, a consultant, farmer, and former Libertarian party chair, polled about six percent through the summer, even though his candidacy had barely gotten off the ground. The party has a 14,000-strong voter registration base, but its summer convention managed to attract only 50 members.
We include Cox here because of his poll standing, because he has run for statewide office before, and because has managed to attract the non-dismissive attention of Republican candidate Mannix.
Other Senate races where third-party candidates are rising ever so slightly above obscurity:
South Dakota: Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans polls in the 1-2 percent range. Georgia: Vietnam veteran and technology executive Sandy Thomas is running as a Libertarian. Missouri: at least two other candidates are on the ballot. Colorado Senate: Rick Stanley is running as a Libertarian. If the race is tight, he could make a big difference.
Other gubernatorial races where third-party candidates are getting legitimate press coverage:
Arizona: Richard Mahoney, a populist libertarian who wants to repeal the state income tax, and Barry Hess, an Independent and former presidential candidate. Mahoney has some statewide name recognition, public financing, and has access to the media. If the race is close, he could be a significant factor. Nebraska: Paul Rosberg, a rancher, formed his own group, The Nebraska Party, rode across the state in a buggy, and will join the two major-party candidates for their debate. Pennsylvania: Libertarian Kenneth Krawchuck and Green Michael Morrill will both be on the ballot. They will not be in the debates this fall, which should get them some "complaint" coverage. Ohio: Steve Linnabary is running as an independent. Oklahoma: Gary Richardson, a former U.S. attorney and former Republican, is polling rather well. He's running as an Independent and polls int he double digits. Tennessee: Watch both Ed Saunders, a charismatic independent, and perennial candidate John Jay Hooker.
House races where third-party candidates could make an impact:
AZ-01: very competitive, newly drawn district will attract a Libertarian and a Navajo candidate. CA-18: Libertarian Linda Degroat is running for Gary Condit's district. CT-05: Walter Gengarelly, an ex-fighter pilot, is running as a Libertarian. FL-05: This race features Independent candidate Jack Gargan, of Reform Party and "Throw The Bums Out" fame. GA-03: Ronnie Thompson, is running as an Libertarian for this new seat. IN-07: Engineer Andy Hornung is running as a Libertarian in this tight contest. KS-03: The Libertarian and Reform parties are running candidates. MN-02: Democratic Rep. Bill Luther's campaign manager admitted to the press that he encouraged No New Taxes candidate Sam Garst to enter the race and try and take votes away from GOPer John Kline. MN-06: If the Independence Party runs a coordinated campaign, candidate Dan Becker may get more than a few votes. MS-03: Libertarians and Independents have jumped into the Shows/Pickering race here. NV-03: Independent Pete O'Neill has qualified for the ballot. NH-01: Dan Belforti, an investment banker, will run as a Libertarian. NJ-05: Both a Libertarian and Independent will be on the ballot for retiring Rep. Marge Roukema's old seat. SD-AL: Libertarian Nathan Barton may well tip the balance in what's looking like a very tight race. TX-05: Green Party candidate Tom Kemper and Libertarian journalist Dan Michalski are both running.