Sharron Angle's Third-Party Problem

Sharron Angle, the original Tea Party insurgent, has been caught on tape pleading with another Tea Party candidate not to run against her on a third-party ticket. Nevada journalist Jon Ralston received a covert recording of a meeting Angle had with Tea Party of Nevada candidate Scott Ashjian.

In the recorded conversation, Angle assures Ashjian that she too disapproves of both major parties, calling the GOP corrupt and claiming that "the Republicans have lost their standards, they've lost their principles." She tells Ashjian that his candidacy will draw votes from her and up Sen. Harry Reid's chances of re-election. "I'm not sure you can win and I'm not sure I can win if you're hurting my chance," she says, "and that's the part that scares me."

Angle brags that she's successfully cornered the national GOP -- "really we have them in a box ... they have no choice, I'm the only game in town" -- and that she can give Ashjian access to powerful Republicans if he agrees to back out of the race now.

"That's really all I can offer to you is whatever juice I have, you have as well," she tells Ashjian. "You want to see DeMint, I have juice with him. ... I go to Washington, D.C. and want to see Jim DeMint, he's right there for me. I want to see Tom Coburn, he's right there for me. I want to see Mitch McConnell, he's there."

CNN reported that Ashjian surreptitiously recorded the meeting and passed the tape along to Ralston. Reid's camp and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pounced upon the news and emailed around summaries of the conversation. Angle's lawyer has claimed that the meeting was a "set-up" by Ashjian, whom various local Tea Party groups in Nevada have accused of being a liberal plant.

This slur is a recurring one in Tea Party politics, and third-party candidates have threatened to siphon votes from major-party rivals in multiple states this year.

In Florida, Tea Party activists have sued a group called the Florida Tea Party, whose third-party candidates are registered in a few races across the state. The activists claim that the group's candidate challenging Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson is a liberal plant intended to siphon votes from Grayson's Republican challenger.

In Pennsylvania, Tea Party activists succeeded in kicking a third-party candidate for governor off the ballot. John Krupa was running on a Tea Party ticket but had qualified for the ballot with signatures he gathered with the help of union officials allied with a prominent county Democrat.

Neither of these campaigns successfully proved that the candidates were liberal plants, but the refrain is a popular one. Tea Party activists have echoed a version of it in defending themselves against accusations of racism and homophobia, claiming that Democrats have brandished hateful signs at Tea Party rallies in an attempt to defame the movement.

In an election season peppered with neck-and-neck races, third-party candidates are getting more attention than their negligible vote counts usually merit. In Missouri, two conservative third-party candidates are ever so slightly narrowing Republican Rep. Roy Blunt's lead over Democrat Robin Carnahan in the state's Senate race. The effect is minor, but the race is close.

In Illinois, meanwhile, polls show Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias losing progressive and African-American votes to Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones.

Then there's Alaska and Colorado, where write-in or third-party candidates have a real shot at winning their races or handing them to Democrats. In a recent CNN/Time poll, write-in candidate and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski trails Republican nominee Joe Miller by a mere two points in Alaska. And in a mid-September Rasmussen poll from Colorado, Constitution Party candidate and former congressman Tom Tancredo gets 25 percent to Republican candidate Dan Maes' 21 percent.

Whether or not Angle needs to be worried about Ashjian, however, is questionable. The third-party candidate garnered 5 percent in a CNN/Time poll in early September, but more recent polls showed him with a mere 1 percent. Then again, one of those polls showed Angle and Reid tied 43-43, so Ashjian's 1 percent could actually tip the scale.