Sean Haugh, the Libertarian pizza deliveryman running for US Senate in North Carolina
The first question that comes to mind when people meet North Carolina Senate candidate Sean Haugh is, This guy is for real? That's definitely what I thought when I met him. A Libertarian pizza deliveryman, Haugh looks the part in his campaign uniform of oversized NORML T-shirts and baggy I-gave-up-on-getting-laid-long-ago jeans.
Despite the homely stoner vibe-and against any expectations-Haugh is actually making a real impact in North Carolina's Senate election, a close race that could determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years. In what has been the ugliest and most grotesquely expensive campaign of the 2014 midterms, North Carolina's Democratic incumbent Senator Kay Hagan is running dead even with Republican challenger Thom Tillis, with outside groups spending $72 million to influence the race.
Enter Haugh, a virtually unknown Libertarian Party candidate whose campaign has raised less than $10,000 this year. The pizza deliveryman is polling at about 5 percent-not enough to actually win anything, but in a race where the two mainstream party candidates are in a statistical dead heat, it could be more than enough to swing the vote. And if, as most analysts assume, Haugh is taking votes that would have otherwise gone to Tillis, he could be responsible for helping Democrats keep control of the Senate.
Which explains why American Future Fund, a conservative group connected to the Koch brothers, is trying to sell Haugh to liberal voters. In a bizarre little ad campaign that the group dropped last week, smiley young actors wave slogans like "More weed, less war," and "Get Haugh, get high," and encourage other young people to vote for the candidate who "supports our values." The intent, it seems, is to turn Haugh to conservatives' advantage by getting all those hippie youths who were going to support Hagan to vote for Haugh instead.
Haugh himself didn't have anything to do with the ads. In fact, his brand of conservatism is probably too hardcore for the Kochs and their Tea Party ilk. (Ironically, Haugh got his start in politics by collecting signatures to get the Libertarian Party presidential candidates on the ballot in 1980, when David Koch was the party's vice presidential nominee.) A former political director for the LP, Haugh's positions are libertarian in the truest sense, which makes him a lonely loser in the two-party system. He's made five bids for public office before this race, including another campaign for US Senate in 2002, and lost every time. His campaign mostly consists of YouTube videos in which Haugh drinks beer and offers his political thoughts and frustrations.
When I met Haugh earlier this month, at a bar in Durham, he told me he had only an hour to spare. Three hours later, when our interview was over, I couldn't get him to leave. After throwing back a few craft beers and playing some skee-ball, we chatted about politics outside the bar as he bummed cigarette after cigarette off me. After the second smoke, the two cameramen I was working with gave up and went back inside. But Haugh didn't care. He didn't need cameras; he had an audience, even if it was just an audience of one. Unable to afford his own ads, Haugh is content to share his politics with anyone who will listen. Among his many views, he tells me he supports gay marriage but thinks the government should just stay out of people's bedrooms, considers the death penalty to be cruel, and would like to end all war. And don't get him started on the NSA and government spying, because he'll never stop.
Haugh also supports legalizing drugs-all of them. In an interview with me for my web series Bills and Brews, he tells me he's not a fan of PCP-"you're stupid to take it"-but acid? "I'm not gonna judge that."
"Amsterdam worked," he told me, referring to the Dutch city's notoriously lax drug policies. Then he was off, talking about America's "overstocked prisons" and draconian drug policies. When I asked if he smoked weed during this year's Senate campaign, he said he had.
"I actually do," he told me in our interview. "This is the first time I've ever admitted it to anybody, but this is the first time anybody's ever asked me directly." He added that he smokes weed for his arthritis, although medical marijuana still isn't legal in North Carolina. But he doesn't seem to care what state or federal authorities have to say on the matter. As for the beers-his campaign signature this year-Haugh says he's not much of a drinker, but likes to do it for his YouTube videos. It's a schtick, and as such, the only sign that this pizza deliveryman is, at heart, a politician after all.
"It's calculated," Haugh tells me. "Totally being myself and understanding the calculations behind how other people are going to perceive me. I love taking advantage of that." He adds, "I know the rules of politics and decided to break this one." Which seems like an understatement.
Matt Laslo has been covering Congress since 2006. He recently launched Bills and Brews, a web series that features interviews with politicians over craft beer.