VIRGINIA BEACH, VA.—Kenny Golden has some years on his opponents in the Second District race, and he isn't shy about reminding people. "Glenn's a nice young man, and Scott's a nice young man," Golden said of Rep. Glenn Nye, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican Scott Rigell, at a League of Women Voters debate this month. "But I've got the experience." A tall, folksy, retired Navy captain with a deep voice, Golden spent years in local politics as the Virginia Beach GOP chairman. But today he is running as an independent, with Tea Party-friendly promises to investigate the elimination of the Federal Reserve, repeal the income tax, slice the Department of Education in half, and push for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian, to be speaker of the House.
Golden is one of dozens of independent or third-party candidates across the country—many influenced by the Tea Party movement. Elsewhere in Virginia, Jeffrey Clark is taking on Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello. In Michigan, Glenn Wilson is campaigning for the House seat occupied by retiring Democrat Bart Stupak. In Colorado's Fourth District, an American Constitution Party candidate and an independent are targeting Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey's seat. And Constitution Party nominee David Ryon is running for Congress in the hotly contested Ohio 15th District.
Democrats embrace third-party participation in these races, seen as prime pickup opportunities for the Republicans, with hopes of siphoning votes from the GOP. "Third-party candidates in Ohio 15th have a history of drawing significant support," says Brad Bauman, spokesman for Ohio Democratic incumbent Mary Jo Kilroy. "We have every reasonable expectation to believe that this will happen this time."
Political observers downplay that likelihood. Independents could affect a handful of races, but "Democrats are still looking at huge losses," says David Wasserman, an analyst for Cook Political Report.
In Virginia's Second District, where Nye, a National Rifle Association-supported Democrat, is running on his opposition to party initiatives such as healthcare reform (and GOP candidate Rigell donated $1,000 to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign), unpredictability seems to be the order of the day. Although Rigell has been leading in most polls, a scandal involving the most recent Virginia Beach GOP chairman—who resigned after he admitted forwarding a racist E-mail—could slow his momentum in a district that is more than 20 percent black. But unpredictability can cut both ways. While Golden attended a recent Tea Party convention in Richmond, his views might appeal not only to ultraconservatives. He advocates raising teacher salaries and investing in clean energy. He also is running on his three decades in the military—an easy sell in a district that depends on the nearby naval base in Norfolk for its economic health. But Rigell insists Golden is pulling equally from Republicans and Democrats.
Independent and third-party candidates have been known to throw a monkey wrench into presidential campaigns—Ross Perot's run in 1992 gained 20 percent of the national vote. But midterms, when people are mostly focused on the administration and party in power, are different. "There's no unifying figure of the Tea Party movement. There's no unifying figure for independent candidates across the map," Wasserman says. "Closer to Election Day, voters tend to have second thoughts about throwing their support behind an independent candidate."