Libertarian Pizza Delivery Guy Sean Haugh Might Decide the Fate of the Senate

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Sean Haugh poses with a beer. Rachel Mills/Wikimedia Commons

Sean Haugh of Durham, N.C., has been a full-time pizza deliveryman for a little more than a year. “I get a lot of spiritual satisfaction from it,” he tells me over the phone. “Everybody loves the pizza guy. I’m delivering joy and relief.”

He likes his job—a lot—but lately he’s been spending a good chunk of his free time trying to get a better one: United States Senator. Haugh is campaigning as the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. And joy and relief are probably the last things his opponents, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, feel when they think about him.

That’s because current polls show Haugh with a not-insubstantial portion of the vote: five percent, according to a Public Policy Polling from Oct. 18. And in a race where most polls show Hagan leading Tillis by three points or fewer, other polls show Haugh with even more support. A SurveyUSA poll released Oct. 21 shows Haugh with six percent, Hagan with 46 and Tillis with 43. A Time Warner News North Carolina poll from Oct. 12 shows Haugh with seven percent of the vote to Hagan’s 44 and Tillis’s 41.

Five to seven percent isn’t enough to win the election, but there’s a very real possibility Haugh might draw enough votes away from either Hagan or Tillis to swing the election.

“I think everybody can agree Sean Haugh’s got a unique pitch to make to voters,” says Ben Ray, a North Carolina state Democratic spokesman. “That said, I do think it’s something else entirely that there’s a Koch group down here dropping $225,000 on Web ads to try and get what we would assume would be liberal voters that would vote for Senator Hagan to pull the handle for Sean Haugh.” The Tillis campaign could not be reached for comment, but it, too, should be concerned, given that Libertarians often appeal to some of the more liberal GOP voters.

Haugh comes across as humble, soft-spoken and gentle, a salt-of-the-earth type who is fed up with Beltway malfeasance and gridlock. In his YouTube videos, he sits in his campaign manager’s basement, wearing a T-shirt and sipping craft beer and speaks directly to the camera. With folksy earnestness, he attempts to spin homegrown solutions to complex issues like geopolitics, campaign finance reform and immigration. “Bombing each other is not a solution for anybody,” he says of the Israel-Palestine conflict. His solution to illegal immigration? End the war on drugs. “Our war on drugs has turned Mexico into a cesspool of violence,” Haugh says. “If we ended the war on drugs, we could break the power of the drug cartels that caused this mayhem and restore peace."

But Haugh’s down-homey manner belies his extensive experience in politics. He decided to “get back into it,” as he puts it, in February. He says he retired from politics in 2010, after spending the previous decade serving as executive director of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina and political director of the national Libertarian Party. He also worked for Free and Equal Elections Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that encourages independents and alternative-party candidates to seek office.  

Haugh also mounted several unsuccessful attempts at elective office, including a 2002 run for the Senate seat he is currently chasing. In that election, Haugh got 33,807 votes, about 1.4 percent of the total.

He likes his odds much better this time around. “There are only three people in this state who could win this election,” Haugh says, “and I’m one of them.” And he thinks he’s got a couple things going for him that he didn’t have in 2002. One is name recognition. Not his, necessarily, but his party’s. “Unlike 2002, I don’t have to spend much time explaining to people what a libertarian is,” he tells me. “We’re kind of trending now. I like to be trendy.”

Libertarians are indeed trending. In the 2012 presidential election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson received about 1.2 million votes, or about one percent of the total. Not much, but the most impressive showing by a third-party candidate since Ralph Nader in 2000. And the Pauls—father Ron and son Rand, both Republicans who lean libertarian—have become household names. Rand, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, is often floated as a possible presidential contender for 2016.

Social media has also made it possible for third-party candidates to run viable campaigns, Haugh says. “There was no YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, anything like that,” in 2002, he says. And in a world where the only ways to reach voters were ads in newspapers, magazines and television, third-party candidates like Haugh couldn’t pony up enough cash to get the word out. But now, Haugh says, “I have much, much greater ability to be able to put my message out there in front of everybody—everybody in the world, really—very inexpensively.” Which also means he doesn’t have to spend as much time canvassing door-to-door and can instead spend more time going door to door delivering pizzas in his trusty 2005 Kia Spectrum. “I’m still working three shifts this week, even though we’re only two weeks out from the election,” he tells me.

And if Haugh gets elected? “I’ll definitely be looking for every opportunity to get out of Washington, D.C., and to get back home and be in touch with people—not only because it’s my job to make sure I’m representing everybody, but also just for my own sanity.”

Will he still deliver pizzas? “Probably a little bit. Certainly I’ll be very busy. But I do enjoy [delivering pizzas]. And I’ll probably keep my hand in it.”