STAUNTON, Va. (AP) —
Every morning, Robert Sarvis, a 36-year-old Harvard-and Cambridge-educated mathematician with a law license and a brand new economics degree, climbs into his family minivan with campaign yard signs jammed behind the two empty child seats and takes his Libertarian candidacy for governor to Virginia’s roads.
You don’t amass such prestigious degrees and not grasp the simple math and past that prove Virginia is not a state historically hospitable to third-party or independent candidates seeking high office, particularly those as young and unknown as Sarvis.
And with just $2,002 in his campaign account six weeks ago, what chance can he have against major-party candidates with millions already spent and millions more available to them?
Ordinarily, not much. But this year, he’s the only candidate in the only competitive governor’s race in America not fielding questions about scandals or investigations in an acrid political season with polls showing little enthusiasm for Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
That, Sarvis figures, creates a rare opportunity to at least get his message heard and establish Libertarian Party’s bona fides under state law.
“The assumption is that this is a two-party system and that anybody outside the two-party system doesn’t need to be taken seriously,” Sarvis said during a break Thursday from the campaign trail at a Staunton cafe. “This election is perfect for getting that message out that we don’t have to be beholden to what many people say is a one-party system, that Republicans and Democrats are essentially two sides of the same coin.”
July statewide polling showed neither Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, nor McAuliffe catching fire. Quinnipiac University’s poll showed that neither was viewed favorably by more than one-third of the 1,030 registered voters surveyed. Sarvis wasn’t included, but a survey last month by Roanoke College in Salem showed that 5 percent supported Sarvis.
Lingering voter fatigue from last year’s brutal presidential battleground election and U.S. Senate battles and this year’s scorched-earth politics shows no hope of respite as this race reaches final full-throttle on Labor Day.
Consider some competing attack ads just aired. A spot by the Republican Governors Association bashes McAuliffe over the electric-car company he led until December — which is now under federal investigation. The closing message couldn’t be clearer: “You can’t trust Terry McAuliffe.”
McAuliffe is airing his own commercial noting that a Virginia inspector general’s investigation of an attorney general’s office staffer over claims she aided Consol Energy, a major Cuccinelli campaign donor, in a legal fight to avoid paying landowners royalties for gas extracted from beneath their property. That ad concludes, “Ken Cuccinelli: He’s not for us.”
That leaves voters such as Joy Fournelle in nearby Waynesboro receptive to other parties, ideas and voices.
“I think I’ve just gotten so jaded toward all of it by the nastiness that’s become politics these days,” said Fournelle, 40, minding the desk at Waynesboro’s River City Antiques Mall as her English bulldog, Kenai, slumbered at her feet. “The two parties are so polarized from each other that no one can get anything done anymore.”
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said a third-party or independent candidate rarely finds conditions as fertile as they are now in Virginia.
“It seems almost tailor-made for a Libertarian candidate this year,” Farnsworth said. “But so many people are conditioned to vote for a Democratic or a Republican candidate. Libertarian candidates appear and disappear like hothouse flowers from one election cycle to the next, but the two major parties are always there. It’s very tough for a Libertarian to convince voters.”
History backs him up. The only non-major-party candidate in modern Virginia to win statewide election, former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., served in the 1970s and ‘80s, and died three weeks ago. While Byrd left the pro-segregation Democratic machine that once ruled Virginia politics, he retained the loyalty of the conservatives who had dominated the party when it ruled Virginia politics for most of the 20th century.
Since then, the only statewide candidate to eclipse 10 percent without a major party label was J. Marshall Coleman, a Republican former state attorney general. With powerful backing from Republican Sen. John W. Warner, Coleman ran as an independent in the 1994 U.S. Senate race and got 11.45 percent of the vote in a vicious battle between two flawed major party nominees: Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North, the Republican, and Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb, who was battling allegations, which he denied, of an affair with a former Miss Virginia.
Ten percent is an important threshold in Virginia politics. A party whose candidate gets 10 percent earns official recognition as a political party under Virginia law. Without that designation, a candidate must gather at least 10,000 valid registered voter signatures, including 400 from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, to appear on the general election ballot.
Also, a 10 percent showing in independent polls is a common benchmark many debate sponsors impose for including candidates in debates with major party contenders.
“I’ll debate anybody anywhere under any conditions,” Sarvis said. “If I can get a large enough share of the vote, the Democratic and Republican parties have to respond to that and realize that they can’t just keep doing the things they’ve always done.”