Last week, Virginia Democrat Sen. Mark Warner agreed to 2 televised debates with his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie, but requested that the Libertarian candidate, Richard Sarvis, be invited to the debates as well. Ordinarily, incumbents may be expected to want to minimize the number of opponents criticizing their record, but Warner, like Democrats around the country, are hoping the Libertarian will take votes from the GOP and ensure his own reelection.
Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, ran for Governor in Virginia last year. He captured around 7% of the vote, more than double the margin separating the victorious Democrat, Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli. While exit polls show Sarvis drew his biggest share of the vote among voters who lean Democrat, the party has become adept at using the Libertarian candidate to portray Republicans as out-of-touch on several issues. Indeed, Sarvis would not have qualified for the Governor’s race without a large donation from a national Democrat donor to fund his nominating petition drive.
Facing a toxic environment for Democrats, Warner and Democrats in North Carolina, Georgia and other states are banking on Libertarian candidates to help them eke out victory in November. In 2012, a Libertarian candidate in Montana likely tipped the election to Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who run a close reelection.
Hoping a third-party challenger will steal votes from one’s opponent isn’t a new political tactic. Use of this kind of factional voting goes back to ancient Greece, for example. The new tactic employed by Democrats isn’t simply that the Libertarian will take votes from the Republican, however, but that the candidacy itself can be used to build a narrative against the Republican candidate.
In recent weeks, the media has been fawning over its latest iteration of the mythical “libertarian moment” in American politics. Roughly every decade, the media discovers a block of voters who primarily just want to be left alone and wonders whether they will reshape the political landscape. Mind you, these “moments” only arise when the Democrat party seems weak and the potential “reshaping” of politics only affects the Republican party.
In other words, the rise of a “libertarian moment” always conforms to the media and liberal view that Republicans need to change their views. The “libertarian moment” never forces an existential crisis for Democrats to rethink their blind support of public sector unions, a rapidly expanding government at all levels or invasive surveillance by the Obama Administration.
Sadly, many Libertarians, overwhelmed at the attention the media is giving them, happily play the parts written for them.
Warner is hoping Sarvis does two things for him in the debates. He will echo Warner’s call to extend the marriage franchise to an additional 3% of the population as some great call to freedom against Republican opposition. Sarvis will also, rightly, criticize both parties for decades of profligate spending, muting any critiques from Republican Gillespie.
If all goes according to Warner’s script, the Libertarian Sarvis will ensure that Leviathan continues growing unchecked. Sarvis may get from the media a few column inches devoted to some of his views. Your mileage may vary on how good of a trade that is.