Chase Oliver could send Georgia’s Senate race to a runoff - he’s OK with that

Chase Oliver loves to dress up for Dragon Con, the fantasy and science-fiction convention held over Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. He prefers villains. One year he came as the Riddler; another as the Norse god Loki.

But this year, Oliver, 37, is playing a different role altogether on a much different stage. As the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, he may be the spoiler.

In the neck-and-neck contest between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, Oliver might peel off enough votes to send the nationally watched race into a runoff. That would translate into four more weeks of campaigning and millions more dollars in spending for a contest already expected to be among the costliest and most consequential in the nation.

Oliver is OK with that.

“The voters send this to a runoff. I don’t,” he said in an interview. “If one of the candidates can’t get 50% plus one of the vote, they don’t deserve to win.”

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In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted last month, Warnock led Walker 46% to 43%, which is within the survey’s margin of error. Oliver drew support from 3% of respondents. About 8% said they were undecided.

History shows that support for Libertarians tends to erode by Election Day. In 2020, Libertarian candidates received between 1% and 3% of the vote in Georgia.

In a tight race, that can be enough.

Finding a political home

Oliver was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved with his parents to Snellville when he was 7. He described his childhood as “a standard middle-class existence.” His dad was a salesman who at different times peddled postage machinery, suits and magazine ads. His mother held different jobs and now works in retail.

Early on, Oliver was interested in politics and public service. He was 14 when he manned phones for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

But he said his real political awakening came during the Iraq War, which he vehemently opposed.

“I felt very strongly that the evidence wasn’t there (to support the war),” he said. “I was at an age where the people who were going go over there and fight this war were the same people I had just been in class with.”

He became an avid supporter of Barack Obama, who had promised to extract the United States from the conflict and also to close Guantanamo Bay, but Oliver became disillusioned when, as president, Obama didn’t move quickly on either. Politically, he was adrift.

Then, at the Atlanta Gay Pride Festival in 2010, he came across the Libertarian booth. Oliver, who is gay, was impressed by the party’s early support for gay rights in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. His views on limited government and restrained foreign involvement also aligned with the Libertarians.

“I said, ‘You know, I think I found a political home here,’ ” he said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

He became increasingly active in the state party, rising to a seat on the executive committee.

His first run for elected office was in 2020 when he was one of seven candidates who ran to fill the remainder of U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ term in the House after the congressman died. Oliver said he was running to honor Lewis’ legacy and to highlight how Georgia laws still limit ballot access for third-party candidates. He placed sixth with 2% of the vote, bested by all five Democrats in the race.

When it came time to select a candidate for the 2022 Senate race, Oliver threw his hat in the ring.

Oliver, who worked in logistics but recently took a job as a liaison between businesses and lenders, said he was drawn to the Senate because he enjoys coalition building and working as a team.

“I would love to go to a UGA football game with Herschel Walker on a Saturday. I would love to listen to Rev. Warnock preach on a Sunday,” Oliver said. “But I am the only one in this race who would be an honest broker for the people of Georgia.”

‘The Goldilocks option’

In Georgia, Libertarians get to stay on the ballot in statewide races as long as at least one of the party’s candidates received at least 1% of votes cast from the total number of registered voters in the previous general election. That requirement was satisfied in 2020 by Shane Hazel in the U.S. Senate race, along with two Libertarian candidates for the state Public Service Commission.

Libertarians are the nation’s largest third party but have failed to get more than about 3% of the vote in national races.

Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton who has written about Libertarians, said the party has long cast itself as the fiscally conservative, socially liberal alternative.”

“They want to be the Goldilocks option,” Devine said.

But he said studies shows Libertarians tend to be right-leaning, and if they pull support from other candidates, it is most likely from Republicans candidates.

Some have speculated that Republicans, unsure about Walker as a viable candidate, could cast a ballot for Oliver as a protest vote.

Runoffs

Georgia’s election law requires candidates to win 50% plus one vote to win outright. So, in races that are tight, just one third-party candidate can throw things to a runoff.

And the state has had some memorable ones. In 1992, Republican Paul Coverdell ousted longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler, a harbinger of the GOP wave to come, because of third-party votes in the general election. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss trounced Democrat Jim Martin in a 2008 runoff. The Republican’s win effectively ended Democratic hopes of securing a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority that year. Then there were the twin runoffs in January 2021, where the wins by Warnock and Jon Ossoff handed control of the Senate to Democrats.

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com

Runoffs are costly and require each side to work frantically to turn their voters out again.

Partisans from both sides are hopeful this year’s Senate race won’t come to that, especially if control of the chamber hangs in the balance, as it did in 2021.

“I don’t think anyone looks forward to a runoff,” said Jason Shepherd, former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party and a professor at Kennesaw State University. “We want to win this thing outright and have a quiet, peaceful holiday season.”

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. George “Buddy” Darden agreed.

“People can say it benefits this candidate or that candidate,” he said. “But the truth is, it’s a crapshoot.”