One of the most tightly contested races in the 2006 "mid-term" U.S. election [the President is elected only in years divisible by 4] is one of the two Senate seats in the state of Virginia. Incumbent Republican Senator George Allen is a "good ol' boy" in the Southern tradition. He wears cowboy boots, supports the war in Iraq, is fond of the Confederate flag, and shamelessly appealed to redneck conservatives in Virginia's heartland during his campaign with a public statement insulting an ethnic minority. His Christian churchgoing mother chose the month before the election to reveal the family secret that she is Jewish by blood and that her parents were persecuted by the Nazis, giving him many opportunities to commit gaffes that were widely reported. Democratic challenger Jim Webb is a Vietnam War veteran and former Secretary of the Navy, is critical of the Iraq war, has written novels with steamy sex scenes, and has plenty of indiscretions and intemperate remarks in his own past. In short, he is the type of person who appeals to the liberal, well-educated professionals commuting to Washington DC from the suburbs in northeastern Virginia. This community, with large proportions of "expat" Yankees, black Americans, immigrants and other ethnic minorities, has grown so large and is so politically at odds with the rest of the state that it has generated a schism in Virginia politics that impedes the functioning of the factious state government. This morning, 36 hours after the polls closed, the race is still not decided. Out of 2.4 million votes, Webb is leading by 7,000: less than one third of a percentage point. The paper absentee ballots are being laboriously counted by hand and when it's finished there will almost certainly be a mandate for a recount. Where am I heading with this? America's most popular third party, the Green Party, fielded a candidate in this race. Glenda Gail Parker, a retired budget analyst whose political experience, as far as I can tell, is limited to being a civil service employee, ran on a single-issue platform: building a high-speed rail network to solve explosively growing suburban Virginia's crippling traffic problem in an environmentally conscious manner. Parker received 26,000 votes in this election. That's more than one percent of the vote, nearly four times the number hanging in the balance between the two major-party candidates. If either of the Republocrat parties (as we Libertarians call them since there's so little substantive difference between them) had co-opted the Green Party platform and appealed to the voters on an issue that affects their lives, a victory would have been announced yesterday morning. Instead, the major parties quibbled over philosophical issues with little practical impact such as gay marriage and whether a candidate who was born in California has the right to call himself a cowboy. You can bet that in Virginia's next election, both parties will devote a lot more attention to serious environmental issues so the Green Party's share of the votes doesn't reach the six-figure mark. This is how a third party can have an impact on American politics without spending a lot of money and actually winning major elections. All it has to do is scare the big parties by siphoning off enough votes to swing an election, and it gets taken seriously. The American Communist Party did the same thing with great success. During its heyday between the two World Wars a few candidates made it onto school boards, city councils and other local government bodies, but no Communist was elected to a national office. Nonetheless the growth of their influence was noted and extrapolated. The Republocrats began falling all over each other in an attempt to woo the voters back into the mainstream, by shamelessly endorsing what had been derided as Communist positions. When President Eisenhower established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1953, he completed the assimilation of the entire 1929 Communist Party platform into the structure of the American government. No candidate in his right mind would now argue against government central planning in key industries like education, charity, energy, transportation and health care, the nanny state's intrusion into our private choices about safety, fitness, sobriety and childrearing, the government labor force of uncountable millions who "administer" each other while pretending to do this work, or the confiscatory tax rates that make it all possible. America has been transformed into a quasi-socialist state without the minions of Communist patriarch Eugene V. Debs ever winning an important election. This is the power of third parties. Do not dismiss them. Do not believe that if you vote for one of their candidates, your vote is "wasted." On the contrary, it can have a far greater impact than one of the millions of votes for the Tweedledees and Tweedledums of the mainstream.