Virginia voters have a lot not to look forward to this November. The state’s gubernatorial race—to replace the term-limited and scandal-wracked Republican Bob McDonnell—features two candidates who in the minds of many represent the worst traits of each party. Democrats have nominated Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton crony and consummate Beltway insider with ties to a company, GreenTech Automotive, under federal investigation for allegedly receiving special treatment from the Obama administration. Atop the Republican ticket is Ken Cuccinelli, currently the Old Dominion’s attorney general and a figure perceived by many—inside his party as well as out—as a rigid social conservative. (For better or worse, he has proved flexible on economics, refusing to sign an Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes.)
Moderate Republicans, gun-owning rural Democrats, and fiscally conservative independents face an unappealing choice. But will that make them any more likely to consider the third name on the ballot, Libertarian Robert Sarvis?
“Certainly Virginia’s voters are just screaming for someone else,” the 36-year-old Sarvis says. No recent third-party candidate in Virginia has bested independent Russ Potts’s 2.22 percent in the 2005 governor’s race. But in a close race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, doing only as well as Potts could still affect the outcome—assuming Sarvis draws votes disproportionately from one of the major-party candidates.
He downplays that possibility, saying his campaign’s research indicates his support comes from “people who were going to stay home because they didn’t like either of the candidates, and then the people who would vote for either of the other two candidates, about equally.” This pleases Sarvis “because it goes to show that you can vote for me without feeling that you are helping one of the other guys win.”
His vote will be a test of the libertarian brand—small as well as big “L”—and whether it can appeal to anyone beyond a tiny sect of true believers.
But if ever yet there was an electorate poised to hear a message like Sarvis’s, it ought to be Virginia in 2013. Republicans won sweeping victories in state races in 2009 and 2010, including electing McDonnell as governor, yet in 2012 President Obama carried the state with 51.15 percent of the vote—just a point and a half less than he received in 2008. Like much of America, Virginia is in the midst of a demographic shift: according to data collected by the Cooper Center, minorities make up 32 percent of Virginia’s population. Sarvis himself represents this new Virginia: he was born to a Chinese mother and is raising his own interracial family.
This changing, purple demographic is where Sarvis hopes to find support. “I have the best from either of the parties without the worst of either,” he says. “That’s why we chose our slogan ‘open-minded and open for business,’ because we want to focus on both economic and personal freedom. None of the other candidates can do that.”
But are these the ideas disaffected Virginians are looking for?
Some of them, perhaps. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, notes: “Not the Libertarian Party as such, but libertarianism has long had appeal broadly, especially in one wing of the GOP. I suppose, with Rand Paul’s rise, that wing may be expanding.”
Virginia’s GOP has also long been split between centrists like Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and conservatives like Cuccinelli and Governor McDonnell. Bolling chose not to challenge Cuccinelli for the party’s gubernatorial nomination—a fight he would have lost—but has refused to endorse him. The acrimony within the GOP, as well as between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, has he potential to benefit an outsider.
“This has been an exceptionally negative campaign, and frankly, the two major-party nominees are highly controversial—both of them,” says Sabato, who suspects that with Bolling opting not to run as an independent, “Sarvis will get some of those potential Bolling votes.”
In fact, Cuccinnelli’s nomination over Bolling helped prompt Sarvis to enter the race. “It was after Bill Bolling had said he wasn’t going to run in the primary; it was clear that it was going to be Cuccinnelli and McAuliffe, and that was clearly going to be a Hobson’s choice for Virginia,” recalls Sarvis. “At that point that I was like, ‘well we really need another candidate,’ and in the LP some folks were looking for … a candidate.”
He’s run for office before, as a Republican, in a 2011 state senate race he lost to Democrat Dick Saslaw. Asked why he changed parties, Sarvis explains that the “GOP was no place for a liberty candidate, someone who actually believes in both personal and economic freedom.”
Sarvis isn’t the only one who feels that way. In July, a Pew Research poll found that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters would like to see the party become more moderate. Sarvis hopes to strike a chord with that group, with his conviction that “on personal issues [the GOP is] very closed-minded and regressive, trying to foist their ideology on the rest of us. On economic issues, they can’t be trusted. They talk about small government and the rule of law, but then we get tax increases and spending increases, and we get a GOP that is beholden every bit as much as the Democrats to corporate backers.”
To judge from his fundraising, the Libertarian has yet to find his audience. In late August, the Cuccinelli campaign had $2.7 million cash on hand, while McAuliffe, displaying the lobbyist’s gift, had $6 million. Sarvis’s campaign balance was $2,002.
But the cash isn’t the whole story, and while Sarvis can’t expect to break double-digits once the votes are counted, his effort may symbolize a long-term philosophical trend. As he candidly puts it, “the GOP should be terrified they’ve lost people like me.”
Marina Olson is an editorial assistant at TAC.