Robert Sarvis is a well spoken, highly educated 36 year old with little money and a thin resume of professional accomplishments. He is also the Libertarian candidate for governor of Virginia. Though he has only spent $40,000 compared to the combined $20 million of the two major party candidates, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, polling that includes him as an option for voters shows that he could obtain 5% to 10% of the vote.
Support for Sarvis comes at the expense of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who trails Democrat McAuliffe in recent polls by six points in the Quinnipiac Polls head to head matchup (48 % to 42%) and seven points (44% to 37%) in the PPP poll when Sarvis is included. Sarvis wins 9% of the vote, 5% coming from Cuccinelli supporters, and 4% coming from McAuliffe supporters.
Two months before the election, Sarvis may be the only man who is not a member of the under-performing Cuccinelli campaign team standing in the way of a possible comeback victory for the Republican.
Sarvis benefits from a highly toxic political environment in which the nominees of the two major parties suffer from extremely high negatives. McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, has been plagued with numerous scandals surrounding his “crony capitalist” past, most notably the SEC and DHS investigations of GreenTech Automotive, the electric vehicle manufacturer where he served as chairman from 2010 to 2012. Cuccinelli has been hit by the offshoots of the ever unfolding scandals surrounding incumbent Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, as well as attacks on his stands on social issues.
Each major candidate has flooded the television airwaves with negative ads attacking his opponent, and voters are getting tired of all those bad vibrations.
Sarvis, slight as his resume is, has fashioned a positive message that emphasizes such warm and friendly phrases as “open minded, intelligent, economically literate leadership,” “personal freedom,” and “economic freedom,” that seems to connect with voters weary of the nasty exchange of negative attacks between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.
Sarvis has also relied upon an impromptu network of volunteers who collected the necessary 10,000 signatures needed to get him on the ballot, a step necessary after he won the Libertarian Party’s nomination in April.
His resume is that of a bright young man whose talents and intelligence have not yet found a permanent professional home. According to his campaign website, Sarvis has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Harvard University, another degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in England, a law degree from New York University, and a masters in economics from George Mason University. In addition to a decade spent as a student at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, Sarvis appears to have had a somewhat eclectic professional career: math teacher, lawyer, software engineer, and mobile-app developer.
In 2011 he ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia State Senate as a Republican, garnering only 36% of the vote in a losing battle against Richard Saslaw in Fairfax County. Saslaw was the State Senate Democratic leader at the time.
But, like many of his generation, Sarvis left the Republican Party. On Tuesday he told the Virginian-Pilot that “Unless the Republican Party in Virginia were to have some reckoning with freedom, I don’t see myself going back.”
Significantly, Sarvis hit on a key point that indicates why his poorly funded campaign appears to be generating some traction and dragging votes away from Republican nominee Cuccinell. “I think they [the Republican Party of Virginia] should be terrified that they are losing people like me,” he told the Virginian-Pilot.
There is a generational element to the appeal of the Sarvis campaign. At 36 he is 9 years younger than the 45 year old Cuccinelli, and 20 years younger than the 56 year old McAuliffe. His campaign themes emphasize issues popular with voters under the age of 35 — socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
While the McAuliffe campaign’s strategy has been to define Cuccinelli as a mean man who wants to rob Virginians of their personal liberty, the Cuccinelli campaign has struggled to find a positive voice. So far, Cuccinelli’s attack ads have succeeded in increasing McAuliffe’s negatives by factually documenting his long record of business deals long on hype and short on results, but, until yesterday, Cuccinelli had failed to define himself in a positive light.
Despite several recent missteps, and the rise of Sarvis in the polls, the Cuccinelli campaign still has a chance of pulling off a come from behind victory during the last two months of the campaign. McAuliffe’s negatives continue to be very high, and his support is unlikely to rise above the magical 50% needed for a victory in a two man race.
With the Libertarian Sarvis playing the role of spoiler, Cuccinelli’s hopes for the Governor’s Mansion hinge on his campaign’s ability to expand upon the positive messaging about his record and personal character in yesterday’s “Justice” television commercial. The ad highlighted the Republican Attorney General’s role in exonerating and setting free Thomas Haynesworth, a man who served 27 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of rape.
The good news for Cuccinelli supporters is he has the financial resources to put that positive message of self definition out to Virginia voters before the election. The bad news is he only has two months before election day, polls show he has a significant gap to overcome, and some of his supporters may have permanently shifted their loyalties to the Libertarian Sarvis.
Image: The Virginian-Pilot