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Independents, Anti-Incumbent Wave Could Create Election Day Surprises

Bookmakers put the odds at a Republican takeover of the Senate at 80 to 90 percent. Sounds pretty close to a sure thing. Is it all over for Democrats? Maybe. But there are still some wild cards out there.
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Republicans are planning election night celebrations all over Washington. Some of them with no music or entertainment. "The entertainment is Fox News," a Republican lobbyist told Politico. Bookmakers put the odds at a Republican takeover of the Senate at 80 to 90 percent. Sounds pretty close to a sure thing.

Is it all over for Democrats? Maybe. But there are still some wild cards out there.

One of them is Independent and third-party candidates. Support for those candidates usually drops on Election Day. Voters figure out that, by voting for an Independent or third party, they are helping the major party candidate they like least. For instance, Libertarian voters tend to prefer Republicans over Democrats. By voting for the Libertarian Party, they are taking votes away from the Republican and helping the Democrat win. On the other side of the ideological divide, look at what happened in Florida in 2000. Independent candidate Ralph Nader drew 97,488 votes in Florida. Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes (official count).

However, when voters are fed up with polarization and gridlock -- as they appear to be this year -- Independents and third-party candidates often do better than expected. Frustrated and angry voters set aside strategic calculations. They vote to send a message of no confidence in politics as usual.

In many close races, Libertarians and Independents could be spoilers. They include Senate races in North Carolina, South Dakota, Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado, Iowa and Arkansas, as well as races for governor in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Hawaii. Senate races in Louisiana and Georgia will go to a run-off if no candidate wins a majority on November 4. Which means the Senate majority may not be decided until December or January ("Merry Christmas. I want your vote!").

In Kansas, Independent Greg Orman may defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (the Democrat has dropped out of the race). If Orman wins and the Senate ends up with 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, Orman will decide the majority all by himself. (A 50-50 split would give Democrats the majority because Vice President Biden would cast the deciding vote for majority leader.)

And how's this for confusion? The Independent candidate for governor of Alaska is running slightly ahead of the incumbent Republican governor. The Democratic nominee for governor dropped out of the race and joined the Independent ticket as candidate for lieutenant governor. Here's the kicker: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin just endorsed the Independent.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is running higher than in 2006 when Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives and Senate from Republicans, and higher than in 2010 when Republicans took back the House. The Pew Research Center reports that, this year, 68 percent of voters believe most Members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected. That's up from 54 percent in 2010 and 50 percent in 2006. Thirty-five percent of voters now say their own Representative in Congress does not deserve to be re-elected, up from 26 percent in 2006 and 32 percent in 2010.

In 2006, when Democrats were furious over the war in Iraq, Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to say that most Members of Congress did not deserve to be re-elected. In 2010, when Republicans were furious over Obamacare, anti-incumbency sentiment was twice as high among Republicans. And this year? Anti-incumbent sentiment is equally strong in both parties (70 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats say most lawmakers should be fired).

Everybody's angry. And that's taking a toll on incumbents of both political parties. According to the Cook Political Report, 12 of the 28 governors running for re-election this year may be in trouble -- four Democrats and eight Republicans. Governors' races are the one bright spot for Democrats right now, simply because the governors up for re-election this year were elected in 2010, a landslide Republican year. The base years for Senators was 2006 and for Representatives 2012, both good years for Democrats. That's one reason why Democrats are set up for losses in Congress on November 4.

We could see some surprising results in this year's governors' races. Republicans could win in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Massachusetts! Democrats could win in Georgia and Kansas. Kansas!

In the Kentucky Senate race, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is running a highly competitive race against Republican Mitch McConnell, who hopes to be the new Senate majority leader. Grimes is doing surprisingly well despite some serious campaign blunders -- like refusing to say whether or not she voted for Barack Obama. The Kentucky Senate race is basically an unpopularity contest between two incumbents, Sen. McConnell and President Obama.

According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of voters have an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party (51 percent) and a majority has an unfavorable view of the Republican Party (56 percent). Roughly a quarter of the electorate doesn't like either party. So how are they voting? Answer: Republican, 53 to 32 percent.

That's why Washington Republicans are ready to celebrate. It's an anti-incumbent year. And while President Obama is not on the ballot, he's the Incumbent-In-Chief.