Robert Sarvis: Libertarian Candidate for Governor of Virginia with Double-Digit Poll Numbers

Sarvis plays on dissatisfaction with major party candidates with a policy of "open minded and open for business"


Robert Sarvis
Robert Sarvis

Robert Sarvis is the Libertarian Party's candidate for governor in Virginia this year, and is so far doing surprisingly well in the polls for that party, coming in recently at 10 percent in a Washington Post poll.  

With a law degree from New York University, a master's in economics from George Mason University, and a Google Grand Prize in the company's Android Development challenge in his past, this married 37-year-old father of two is trying to appeal across the libertarian spectrum of "leave us alone" with a slogan of "Virginia: open minded and open for business."

Predictably, the office of Republican gubernatorial candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is saying a vote for Sarvis is essentially a vote for Democratic Party candidate Terry McAuliffe. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Sarvis by phone yesterday about the joys and travails of a surprisingly lively third party campaigner.

Reason: What possessed you to run for office?

Robert Sarvis: I had a long-standing interest in public policy, and became increasingly frustrated with what I saw as bad policy from both Republicans and Democrats. With the financial crisis and recession and housing crash and the responses to that, I became sure politicians didn't understand what was going on and weren't really thinking through the likely outcomes of their policy choices and were too much in bed with big business and big banks.

In my area, in 2011 state elections, I saw a bunch of uncontested races—in Virginia's House of Delegates and Senate often incumbents don't have challengers—and decided, let's give it a try, see if I like politicking. I couldn't be doing this race without [his first race as a Republican candidate for state Senate in 2011 in the 35th district—he got the nomination uncontested]. I learned about politics, got comfortable talking to voters. I got no particular support from the state [Republican] Party, just local volunteers helping out at polling location. [Sarvis got 36 percent of the vote, spending a mere $26,000] That district is fairly strongly liberal Democrat.

Reason: Why are you running outside the Republican Party now?

Sarvis: I got sick of the broken promises of Republicans on economic policy. In Virginia in 2009 the Republicans won the governorship and lieutenant governorship and in 2011 they achieved an effective majority in the state Senate—it's a tie but the lieutenant governor is the tiebreaker. [The Republicans] had the House, Senate and governor's office and we didn't get tax reform, didn't get regulatory reform, didn't get school choice, that was frustrating. [The Party's] social policy took a rightward direction and the GOP in Virginia is very socially conservative. I no longer really cared to invest in the GOP.

When I saw who the candidates were going to be this time around, it was terrible choices and [he began communicating with the state Libertarian Party].  I got support from Libertarian Booster PAC, 10 grand [most of which went for 10,000 signatures needed for ballot access, with at least 400 from each of 11 congressional districts]. A guy working with that PAC had run for delegate near me and knew I was interested in running for something else. He floated the idea, I was interested.

Reason: What inclined you to care about politics this much?

Sarvis: I grew up in a very moderate Republican, moderate conservative family, but almost entirely fiscal conservatives. I don't think personal, social issues were even that important when I was a kid, or I just wasn't aware of them, my family didn't talk about them. When I was in college studying economics, and also living on my own, the freedom and responsibility that comes with that, by the time I got out of college I was across the board a small "l" libertarian. I didn't know the word existed or that it was a Party or school of thought.

Reason: What's the situation you are running in this year? Many are crediting your success in polls so far to widespread discontent with your opponents.

Sarvis: Cuccinelli is very, very socially conservative, he's also said very negative things about gays, tried to bring back anti-sodomy laws, says government should be in the business of criminalizing sodomy between consenting adults, he's been inconsistent on federalism issues—he's famous for fighting the Obamacare mandate. He has a good reputation among Tea Party folk but he's not that strong on economics and he leaves a lot to be desired, he's very unlibertarian though he tries to court libertarians, he'd do head fakes to libertarians like saying he's evolving on drug war. The Republican Liberty Caucus [who endorsed Cuccinelli]….there's only about 50 of them and they think they have some power within the party, but the social conservatives are just playing them. It's kind of sad to see it happen. I think they don't know a lot about Cuccinelli, how strong he really is on economics, and they downplay the social conservatism, some by saying at the end of day they just don't care about social issues or they just swallow [any objections] because they don't want McAuliffe.

McAuliffe is a big Democratic Party moneyman, especially the Clintons' big moneyman. He thinks success and failure should be determined by political access on both sides, working for politicians to get money flowing [from businesses] and starting companies whose main business plan is to get millions or billions in government subsidies. That was what [McAuliffe's company Greentech Automotive] was about, subsidies for green energy.

Reason: What's it like, running for statewide office as a third party guy?

Sarvis: The early days was basically doing as much as possible to get any sort of media attention or speaking opportunities, reaching out to Tea Party groups, libertarian groups, liberal groups. I would speak to anyone. Now that I'm polling so well, the ball's rolling, already more offers for meet and greets are coming. A lot of smaller forums automatically invited us, but not as many of the major issue forums, at the start, but I'm starting to get those, though there are still a few that operate from the assumption that third parties are safely ignored. I was not in the first two debates but I have a very strong shot of getting in the third if I maintain 10 percent in polls by October 10, in a poll or possibly in multiple polls, it's always a little vague how they make those decisions.

Reason: When you get a chance to make a brief presentation before voters, what do you like to emphasize?

Sarvis: That we need the rule of law, to get back to the idea that government isn't granting special privileges to special interests. That has two aspects, one that it's unfair to privilege people with political access and it undermines the economy because lots of times special privileges are not just subsidies, but raising regulation to reduce competition, close off markets, raise costs of entry, that [eliminating those government interventions is a] way to get economic growth and fairness. I also talk taxes; health care is a big one, obviously we're debating that nationwide. I talk about the reasons why the federal government is a major source of how messed up health care is, and talk about how we shoot ourselves in the foot at the state level with state regulations, licensing, accreditation rules for doctors and nurses that [create] a cartelized profession, which raises costs. We also have "certificates of public need" [before one can legally operate a medical care facility] which is just market protectionism for incumbents [in medical markets]. School choice is also a huge one, I talk a lot about gay marriage, drug reform. You are never gonna get asked about that by any mainstream outlet unless you weave it into an answer, but audiences like to hear about so I try and do that.

Another big issue is standardized testing, I'm the only person who says get rid of them entirely. Transportation is the perennial hobbyhorse of all Virginia voters. We just had a huge transportation bill last year, it increased spending on transportation which in some areas was badly needed, but did so with huge tax increases and moving away from user-pays gas taxes and toward general tax increases, so it's a terrible revenue scheme. Our government system has lots of bureaucracies that date back to the Byrd machine, a strong family that dominated Virginia politics for several decades, so we have a lot of bureaucracies that are super centralized and inefficient and that's another thing I talk about.

Reason: How do audiences react to you?

Sarvis: Mostly we are getting elation—people who come talk to me after or write are in elation that they have another choice. Early polls were showing 40 percent didn't want to vote for either [major party candidate] and it's an easy sell once people realize I'm in the race. People like that I talk to them like adults. 

Reason: How are you doing with fundraising?

Sarvis: I think we done fairly well. We've got $75,000 raised and most of that has been husbanded wisely, I have money to put ads on the air now. Our first ad aired during a debate I was not included in, and got good feedback and [I'll be able to] put that on statewide. If we can't get huge donations it's fine getting thousand and two thousand dollar donations. There is no maximum giving in Virginia, individuals and corporations can give, anyone can give, except foreign nationals who don't have a green card.

Reason: I understand you get more in-state money than your major party opponents?

Sarvis: By a huge margin, their money is two-thirds to three-fourths out of state, my money is two-third in state and most of the out of state came with that $10,000 in ballot access [from Libertarian Boosters PAC] so exclude that ballot money and probably my in-state would be 80-90 percent.

A huge reason for why people are saying my name and not just saying "undecided" in polls, we literally went everywhere we could around the state and every time we had an event reached out to local media and whoever would bite we give as much time as they wanted, just show them that we appreciated they were covering us. People like Bart Hinkle at Richmond Times Dispatch, people at Roanoke Times were willing to say hey, this guy sounds credible, intelligent, people don't like the other two, why not throw him on the news site and see what happens? Once one person does it everyone wants in on the action.

One Bearing Drift poll showed in the 4th and 5th districts, Richmond and Charlottesville, that confirms our strategy paid off because those are areas early on we spent a huge amount of time, and because we spent lots of time there we were getting more media. Our efforts are reaching voters because the places we spent the most time is where I have the most support. Those are very significant numbers in the 4th and 5th district, over 20 percent.

Reason: You got a master's in economics recently from George Mason University, which is known for a libertarian/Austrian/free market program…but you have a non-economics background as well.

Sarvis: I went to Mason mostly because they are nearby and have a strong free market bent to it. I'm not into the whole Austrian type, strongly libertarian economics, I like more mainstream economics and would have been happy to go elsewhere [as well]. I went to law school 2002-5 and clerked in Mississippi for a federal judge for a year and then worked at Gibson Dunn Crutcher, a D.C. law firm, mostly in securities law and other large litigation and government contracts.

It was very slow paced, and my previous background in software development, in the tech community in San Francisco, was more fast paced. With law you can be on the same case for several years and you are a cog in a large team of lawyers and [I decided] I wasn't contributing to society to my best ability. I wasn't necessarily looking to leave law, but around the time when Android and iPhone platforms were coming out, [I realized that was] going to be an interesting and exciting field. So what started as a hobby with friends, together we started a company working with that, then we quit our jobs and did it full time. That was a good experience that lasted a few years 'til everyone decided to move on to Google and Palantir and I started running for state Senate. I'm doing [politics] fulltime until November and then I'll see what happens.

Reason: I've seen you make the point, regarding gay marriage, that your own marriage [to Astrid Sarvis, a black woman] had been illegal in many parts of the country all too recently.

Sarvis: I would have the same view before I started dating my wife, but it sort of gives me more credibility on the issue and more personal stake in the matter. It's easy for Terry McAuliffe to say he supports it, but not really fight for it. To me it's something I want to fight for out of a sense of duty. [Virginia passed a constitutional amendment in 2006 with votes from both houses of their legislature and a popular vote that bars both gay marriage and civil unions.]

Reason: Are you finding the whole government shutdown brouhaha on voters' minds?

Sarvis: People understand there's a lot of dysfunction because the parties are so polarized with my way or the highway rhetoric. People are thirsty for some change which might not be, not ideological libertarianism, but the idea of let's give another party a try. My campaign isn't just about trying to get elected but also to make arguments that need to be made, to talk about issues in ways that can connect with voters who are not necessarily free market types. I talk about drugs a lot, weave that into the economic impact of welfare and how the social safety net disincentivizes work; even with liberal audiences people like that.

Reason: You voted for Ron Paul in the Republican primary, before switching to Gary Johnson in the 2012 presidential election. How do you see your efforts in relation to the Paul brand of libertarianism?

Sarvis: A lot of our young volunteers, you ask them how they become libertarian and they say Ron Paul. He made a lot of young people aware in a time nobody else but him was talking about liberty and the rule of law. He laid out the battle plan for going after young people on college campuses which show a huge appetite [for these ideas].

I welcome everyone, certainly including Paul fans, though I think on immigration issues he wasn't as liberty oriented as I'd like. Obviously Rand Paul has gone more mainstream Republican, said he's not going to attempt to change the drug war; I'm not sure where he stands on immigration. While I never bought into the "Ron Paul is racist" thing, I know an element in his support is socially conservative even if they don't want government involved in that, it just seems to align with people who aren't fully liberty minded.

We've got a large volunteer base, probably 400-500 people, though not all necessarily active going out door to door. A lot of those people are young or recent college graduates, totally fed up with the system. A lot of people who never voted for anyone but a Republican or Democrat and this will be the first time [they go third party].

Reason: What do you think the national implications might be for your surprising local polling success?

Sarvis: At every level of government, federal, state, and local, it's gotten away from the idea government should be in the business of protecting our rights. We've allowed it to be captured by special interests, but there is a real appeal for getting back to the rule of law and greater freedom for all; all we need are committed people running mainstream campaigns and actually talking about issues and offering real solutions people can get behind.

I've gotten emails from people out of state saying they are inspired to see what we're doing and want to replicate that in their state. [If I do well], it shows both state and federal government incumbents that there is appeal out there [for libertarianism] and they need to start responding to that desire.