Virginia voters confronting their choices for governor this year feel much as Woody Allen once did: "More than at any other time in history," Allen wrote, "mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
The Democrats have nominated the only man in their party to step up: Terry McAuliffe. Denounced – by liberals, no less – as a soulless political hack, McAuliffe is running on the strength of his business acumen, even though his more recent ventures look less like Steve Jobs than Harold Hill. The Republicans have nominated Ken Cuccinelli, who is denounced – by conservatives, no less – as a strident extremist whose views on social issues make Cotton Mather look like Caligula.
This might be the only race in recent history where the candidates' approval ratings go down as their name recognition goes up. The consensus among those who know something about political horse racing holds that most Virginians will be voting against a candidate rather than for one. So some voters may take solace in knowing there is a Door No. 3: Robert Sarvis.
The 36-year-old Sarvis has some things going for him: He has submitted 17,000 petition signatures, or 7,000 more than required to get on the ballot. He is, to put it mildly, smart – having earned degrees in math from Harvard and Cambridge, then a law degree from NYU, then a master's in economics from GMU. He is a native Virginian. Half-Asian, with an African-American wife, he is bulletproof on diversity grounds. He is wonkish: As a fellow at GMU's Mercatus Center, he co-authored, among other things, a paper on America's historical experience with fiscal stimuli. And he is a technological innovator: He was a winner of Google's 2008 Android Developer challenge for mobile apps.
But Sarvis also has some things working against him. He is running on the Libertarian ticket, which almost always is a ticket to oblivion. He has never held public office. This is a major shortcoming for a gubernatorial candidate and could be an even greater one for any governor not named Schwarzenegger. (Sarvis disagrees: He says elective experience does not equal managerial ability.) Granted, Sarvis shares that shortcoming with Terry McAuliffe. Some consolation.
At least McAuliffe would have the institutional backing of the Democratic Party. This would help him advance his agenda (which is not necessarily a good thing) while thwarting the GOP (which could be). As a third-party officeholder, Sarvis would have occasional sympathizers in both parties, but allies in neither. Then again, he points out that "each of my opponents is held in such low esteem by members of the opposite party that their 'effectiveness' may well be extremely circumscribed." Besides, he says, effectiveness is overrated: Who wants "a governor who can easily ram through a few dozen hyper-partisan bills"?
Still, Sarvis could wind up a caretaker. A caretaker governor might actually benefit Virginia – which is well-managed, has a generally good tax and regulatory climate, and confronts no immediate crisis. Should a crisis arise, though, little benefit would come from having a noob at the helm.
Not that anyone has to worry. The last candidate to make an independent bid for governor in Virginia – Republican Russ Potts – won 2 percent of the vote. The last Libertarian to do so, William Redpath, won 0.8 percent.
Sarvis might do better. The nation is having a bit of a libertarian moment just now. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is a rising star, which has earned him notice from The Washington Post and brickbats from The New Republic, which portrays him as a dangerous radical. Radicals without influence are objects of mirth, not fear.
Given the widespread dismay over Virginia's two major-party candidates, Sarvis could rack up a larger protest vote, percentage-wise, than any independent since Ross Perot. To do so, he first will have to convince the public it need not choose between despair and extinction in order to choose correctly.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.