RALEIGH, N.C. — On Wednesday, Sean Haugh had just finished a live interview with Fox News when he headed to breakfast at a Waffle House outside of downtown Raleigh.
“I’m pretty sure I know exactly what I want,” Haugh said, glancing quickly through his 1970s-relic glasses at the laminated menu.
Haugh, the Libertarian candidate for Senate in North Carolina, might upend one of the most important Senate races anywhere in this midterm election cycle, between Republican Thom Tillis or Sen. Kay Hagan, if he draws enough votes away from either candidate. The race could decide what party controls the Senate majority.
The national media have jumped on Haugh’s offbeat story, and Haugh’s interview with Fox News on Wednesday was just the latest in a long line of press he’s received. He’s been profiled by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News, among others. Later Wednesday, after breakfast, he’d sit for another interview with ABC News.
On Thursday, Haugh will appear side-by-side with Hagan and Tillis in a televised debate in Wilmington, N.C. It will be his sole chance to debate directly with the two candidates.
But he hasn’t thought about it much.
“One of the rules I live by is, I think, best expressed by Mark Twain: ‘If you always tell the truth, then you don’t have to remember a damn thing,’ ” Haugh said, during an hour-long conversation with the Washington Examiner. “I’m just myself.”
Haugh is a perplexing and interesting political oddity. He dresses like he hasn’t shopped for new clothes for decades. His campaign has consisted mostly of YouTube videos in which he drinks beer in his campaign manager’s basement and chats about politics. He recently berated one commenter on his Facebook as an “ignorant moron.”
And, in recent public polling, he has been winning as much as seven percent of the vote.
Even as he has been on the media circuit as midterm-election sideshow, Haugh has kept up his normal job as pizza delivery man. After some shifts, which can end as late as 3 a.m., he foregoes the free pizza from work to dine at Waffle House.
“If I’m hungry after getting off my shift at work, I’ll get a large hash brown ‘all the way,’ hold the cheese,” Haugh said. “If you order it ‘all the way,’ they hold the gravy. You don’t want to get both the chili and the gravy on it at the same time. It’s one or the other.”
Haugh’s pizza delivery job has even taken precedence over standard debate preparation, such as watching previous debates between Hagan and Tillis.
“The first one, I wasn’t invited, so I just went to work, because I felt like delivering pizzas was going to be a much better use of my time than watching a snoozefest,” Haugh said.
During the second debate, on Tuesday, Haugh had the night off from work and went to Satisfaction, a local sports bar, for a regular Libertarian meeting.
“I was mostly watching the baseball game,” Haugh said. “They had the debate on on one TV with no sound, so I got some of the visuals of it, and I found it fascinating just watching it visually.”
On Thursday, the full extent of Haugh’s debate prep will consist of relaxing during the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Durham to Wilmington, while his campaign manager, Rachel Mills, a former communications director for Ron Paul, is at the wheel.
“I don’t feel like I have to talk to either [Hagan or Tillis] or really address either of them directly,” Haugh said. “I just need to get out my message and people will see, without me having to draw a big circle and arrow around it, just how different I am.”
For all of his novelty, Haugh is far from a political neophyte. His grandfather, John Haugh, served as speaker of the Arizona House. During college, in 1980, Sean Haugh worked for the Libertarian presidential campaign of Ed Clark and his running mate, David Koch — one half of the Koch brothers who have played a major role bankrolling Republican Senate candidates this year. Haugh traveled across the country petitioning to get Clark and Koch on the ballot.
But Haugh soon became disenchanted with libertarianism, which he said seemed closer to a “debate club” at that time than a viable political movement.
“I figured, I can talk to people about your constitutional right to own a battleship over a beer at a bar. I don’t need a political party for that,” Haugh said. “A political party exists to run candidates for office and engage in elections.”
In the '90s, however, Haugh began to notice Libertarian candidates on the ballot in North Carolina, and he was encouraged to become active in politics again. He went on to lead the state Libertarian Party, and he later worked as political director for the Libertarian National Committee.
He has also run for Senate in North Carolina once before, in 2002. Since then, he said, “the world has completely changed ... in a beautiful way.”
“No. 1, everyone knows who a Libertarian is now. You have a lot of people outside the Libertarian Party who are trying to claim to be libertarians, because it’s cachet,” Haugh said, pointing to national political figures like Sen. Rand Paul. “It’s kind of nice. I like being trendy.”
Social media has also helped third-party candidates such as Haugh to reach voters without needing to spend money.
Potentially rattling a major Senate race could be an unintended consequence of these shifts, although it’s still unclear whether Haugh will ultimately have the “spoiler” effect that some have predicted. Some polls have shown Haugh drawing evenly from would-be Hagan and Tillis supporters.
So, Haugh might not be a spoiler after all. He might still be.
And it’s all the same to him.
“I’m very grateful to be in this position where there is all this national attention on this race. I’m certainly happy to take advantage of it,” Haugh said. “I mean, you want to talk to me about the whole spoiler effect? If that’s what gets me on TV, sure.”