In Virginia Governor Race, Third Party Spoiler Threatens

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Rebecca Barnett/The Roanoke Times/AP

Robert Sarvis speaks at the end of the parade at Glen Maury Park during the 43rd annual Buena Vista Labor Day Festival in Buena Vista, Va. on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013.

Does long shot gubernatorial third party candidate Robert Sarvis have a chance to become the next governor of Virginia?  Not likely.  But could he be a spoiler?  The answer is a resounding “Maybe.”

A Quinnipiac University poll out yesterday shows a close race between the two major party candidates with Terry McAuliffe at 44% – 41% for Ken Cuccinelli.  Thirty-seven year old, Libertarian candidate Sarvis, has 7% t of likely voters.  In the past two weeks four different polls have shown him at seven to 10 points, with an average of nine points.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling, says it is difficult to know which of the two candidates might be hurt more by votes for the Libertarian.  Sarvis currently has 14% of the Independent vote, 3% of the GOP vote and 2% of the Democratic.

“Voters are not wild about either man, and that may be one reason why Libertarian Robert Sarvis is running so well,” says Brown. The two major party candidates are failing to generate much enthusiasm or crossover support. Richmond Times editorial writer, Bart Hinkle, wondered earlier this year if the race boils down to a choice between Sauron vs. SpongeBob. “History tells us that third-party candidates tend to experience shrinking support as Election Day nears. If Sarvis does get 7 percent of the actual vote, that would reflect not just his strength, but the weakness of the major party candidates,” said Brown.

But it will be an uphill battle to make his presence known in this nasty and intensely-covered battle.  According to the most recent Finance Reports in mid-August, both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have over a $5 million balance in their campaign war chests.  Sarvis has $19,000.  So far, he has not been in a single debate, although the Richmond Times Dispatch ran an editorial last July saying he has earned the right to participate, and the campaign has been in talks with debate organizers regarding future debates.

According to Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the last time an independent came very close to winning the governorship was in 1973 when the Democrat-turned-Independent Henry Howell lost to Democrat-turned-Republican Mills Godwin by 1.5%.  The circumstances were unusual.  Both candidates had switched parties.  Howell, the former Democrat, got the support of the Virginia Democratic Party but decided to ditch the label lest he be tied to the devastating failure of George McGovern’s presidential race.

When he ran for statewide office in the state Senate race as a Republican in 2011, Sarvis won only 36% of the vote, losing to state Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw.  Now running as a Libertarian, the software engineer, mobile-app developer, math teacher and lawyer holds math degrees from Harvard University, the University of Cambridge in England, a law degree from New York University, and a master’s in economics from George Mason University.

He supports a reduction in the income tax and business taxes, eliminating tax preferences for some industries.  He is in favor of marriage equality for gays and lesbians.  The candidate, who is married to an African-American woman, ran a Web ad appealing to progressives on this issue.  “If it weren’t for the courage of the Lovings [the interracial couple that fought a landmark civil rights case over the legality of their marriage], I might not have been able to marry the woman I love,” he says. “But today Virginia still isn’t for all lovers. That’s why I want to honor the Loving legacy and lead the fight now in this election to recognize same-sex marriage in Virginia.”

He describes himself as moderate on abortion.  He wants to legalize marijuana, decriminalize other drugs, supports drilling for oil off the Virginia coast and privatizing state-owned liquor stores.  He says he is best able to represent the diversity of the state because of the diversity of his own family—a Chinese mother and African-American wife.

Outside of the Howell race and one other involving a divisive battle among Democrats, no third-party candidate has won as much as 3% of the vote.  Sarvis will either repeat history and sink down to 2% to 3% or he will stay close to 10% and make a dent in someone’s campaign.  If he meets the 10% threshold, he not only will influence the outcome of the governor’s race, but would also give Virginia Libertarians a major boost.  By state law, if a third-party candidate reaches 10%, the party gets automatic ballot access for future party candidates, which would make him a hero to the Libertarian movement.