Libertarian Crashes the Party on Virginia's Debate Night

Sarah Mimms
National Journal

Halfway through Wednesday evening's contentious gubernatorial debate in Virginia, a female voice asked a question that was likely going through the minds of many voters: "Can't vote for either of these guys?"


Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who has been gaining in recent polling thanks to voters' dissatisfaction with both of the main party candidates, ran his first 30-second television ad during the debate, touting himself as another option. Coming on the heels of more than 30 minutes of heated debate -- in which Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe accused his Republican rival, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, of supporting a social agenda that is bad for women while Cuccinelli accused McAuliffe of wanting to sell Virginia to the highest bidder -- Sarvis criticized both candidates, offering Virginians a third choice.

"Like you, I can't vote for Ken Cuccinelli's narrow-minded social agenda. I want a Virginia that's open-minded and welcoming to all," Sarvis said in the spot. "And like you, I don't want Terry McAuliffe's cronyism either, where government picks winners and losers. Join me, and together we can build a Virginia that's open-minded and open for business."

While each of the major party candidate's negatives have risen over the past few months of an increasingly nasty campaign -- 36 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable opinion of McAuliffe in this week's Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll, and a full 47 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Cuccinelli -- Sarvis has begun to see an uptick among voters clearly dissatisfied with both of their options. The Post poll showed him with 10 percent support among Virginia voters in a three-way contest, while a WRC-TV/NBC News/Marist poll conducted around the same time showed him with 8 percent support.

Sarvis was not invited to participate in the debate, which was produced by WRC-TV in Washington and aired on NBC affiliates throughout the commonwealth.

The ad was smart and well-timed, but it offered little information about Sarvis himself, who supports "responsible drug use" and gay marriage. It also neglected to mention his party affiliation until the word "Libertarian" appeared on-screen at the end of the ad.

A third-party candidacy is always an uphill battle, particularly for a candidate like Sarvis, who is not well known and has little in the way of money or a ground organization. But Sarvis could pull in double-digit support in November, potentially influencing the outcome of what is likely to be a low-turnout contest.