The New Future of Libertarian Politics

Can the Libertarian Party make good on Robert Sarvis' surprising showing in the Virginia governor's race?


Robert Sarvis, a former tech entrepreneur and lawyer involved with the free-market think tank Mercatus, won a surprising amount of the vote as the Libertarian Party's candidate in last week's Virginia governor's race—6.6 percent, or around 145,000 votes.

That was the third largest vote percentage any Libertarian has ever won for any governor's race. The two who did better, Dick Randolph in Alaska in 1982 and Ed Thompson in Wisconsin in 2002, had, unlike Sarvis, held elective office in their states before. Sarvis copped the best third party result for any party in the South for a gubernatorial candidate in 40 years.

Many Republicans reacted to Sarvis' strong showing, combined with Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's narrow defeat by Democrat Terry McAuliffe, with accusations that Sarvis caused Cuccinelli's loss.

The resulting bad feelings have caused schisms within the roughly conceived "liberty movement" in the Virginia area. The Republican Liberty Caucus and both Ron and Rand Paul supported Cuccinelli, and consequently many of the people associated with the Paul campaigns and Paulite groups such as Campaign for Liberty are heating up social networks and real relationships. "There's a lot of friction between libertarian Republicans and the Libertarian Party," says Virginia state LP chair Chuck Moulton. "A few friendships were lost. People are very angry at each other."

Said bad feelings—the Sarvis campaign and the national LP both report a heavy wave of hate calls and emails in the past week—are based on some misunderstandings.

The first is blaming Sarvis for Cuccinelli losing, presuming that naturally Republicans rightfully own the votes of all believers in liberty and smaller government (despite Cuccinelli's social conservatism). The Federalist website has the most thorough summation of the data that proves that notion totally wrong in this case, noting:

Sarvis received only 6.5 percent of total votes cast, he received 15 percent support from 18 to 29-year-olds, not an age group that traditionally supports Republicans….Sarvis received only 3 percent of votes from self-described conservatives, but he garnered the support of 7 percent of liberals (McAuliffe won this demographic by 85 points) and 10 percent of moderates….(McAuliffe won this group by 22 percent). Liberals were more than twice as likely as conservatives to support Sarvis.

Most of Sarvis' supporters came from ideological groups — liberals and moderates — that overwhelmingly supported McAuliffe…..

Exit polls show that if Sarvis were not in the race, McAuliffe would almost certainly have won by a larger margin than he did.

A second reason many "liberty movement" types hate Sarvis is a story that broke the morning of the election in The Blaze which claimed Sarvis was a deliberate Democratic Party plant meant to help McAuliffe win the election. The state LP chair suspects the accusation was coordinated with the Cuccinelli campaign. Moulton says he heard reports from various precincts across the state that Republicans around the polling places were armed with the story just as it broke. See above for how silly that would make the Democrats look if the accusation were true: Sarvis' presence in the race hurt McAuliffe, by all available evidence, more than it hurt Cuccinelli.

This conspiracy theory is extremely unlikely not just because it would've been a counterproductive strategy for Democrats. The idea that Sarvis was a Democrat plant is based entirely on the fact that the Libertarian Booster PAC, run by longtime Texas LP man Wes Benedict (who currently serves as executive director of the national LP), gave a bit over $11,000 toward getting Sarvis on the ballot. And that PAC, in turn, received $150,000 from Texas software entrepreneur Joe Liemandt. Liemandt and his wife, in turn, have both also donated six-figure amounts to the Obama campaigns. But Liemandt was no carpetbagger swooping onto the LP; he has also given high five figures to the Libertarian National Committee since 2009, and $100,000 to the Libertarian Action PAC in April 2012. I was unable to reach Liemandt, but sources close to the LP say that the Democratic Party is far more his wife's interest than his. Besides, as others close to the campaign point out, wealthy businessmen often think big political giving to big political players is a necessary fact of life.

Benedict and Sarvis both deny that Liemandt played any part in either Sarvis's decision to run or the PAC's decision to fund him. If Sarvis was intended to help ensure a Cuccinelli defeat, it's curious that the PAC Liemandt funded and supposedly manipulated gave such a petty amount to the hugely outspent Sarvis, and that they didn't pick a candidate who would appeal more to likely Cuccinelli voters rather than one who stressed a civil liberties and tolerance message designed to appeal more to Democrats disaffected by McAuliffe's sleazy reputation.

Chris Stearns, a 26-year-old liberty movement member of the state Republican Party's central committee, worked briefly for Cuccinelli's campaign, and considered him a worthy liberty candidate even though he disagreed with Cuccinelli on things such as sodomy laws and gay marriage (neither of which a governor would have unilateral power to change anyway, as libertarians for Cuccinelli would point out). But Stearns understands and respects those who feel they need to pursue liberty activism through the LP, and thinks Cuccinelli should have been open to letting Sarvis in the debates. "I think we can easily survive some bitterness and bad blood among a few of us" in the larger liberty movement, Stearns says. He doesn't think the Sarvis vs. Cuccinelli brouhaha will affect the progress of Ron Paul types in the Virginia GOP; "the vast majority of those supporting Sarvis never operated within the infrastructure of the Republican Party anyway."

Sarvis came to the LP not through the machinations of the Democratic Party, but by being a disaffected former GOP candidate for state Senate in 2011. Moulton remembers attending meetings of the state's Republican Liberty Caucus back then and "my impression was that they are misnamed; they are more like the Republican Fiscally Conservative Caucus, because they didn't seem to care so much about social issues. I asked each candidate in a Q and A about those issues and Sarvis stood out as the only truly libertarian candidate there."

Moulton tried and failed to talk Sarvis into a 2012 LP run for Congress, but when the LP and the Libertarian Booster PAC were both looking for a candidate for governor who could afford to help finance his own ballot access and race—the state Party was down to only around $5,000 in the leadup to getting a candidate on the ballot—Sarvis stepped up.

His surprising vote total followed even more surprising and overly optimistic polling that occasionally had him above 10 percent. His team ran a professional media contact operation and managed to get more earned media than almost any other state-level libertarian candidate ever, winning genuine respect for his seriousness from many local papers and TV stations. Being so close to D.C. national media, he got big national play as well.

That national media led to his third big problem with liberty movement types: an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC where the very cool and cerebral Sarvis answered questions about health care reform and taxes not with ringing calls to end Medicaid and cut all taxes, but with measured and wonky responses about the market interventions that make medical care more expensive, and about the importance of cutting spending rather than only talking tax cuts.

This led National Review to declare misleadingly that Sarvis wanted to expand Medicaid and did not want to cut taxes, although his website lists various taxes he wants to cut, including the Car Tax, the Machine & Tools tax, Merchants' Capital tax, and other business taxes. He wrote on his website of "[e]liminating, or dramatically reducing, the income tax…Reforming property taxes by excluding, or lowering the rate applied to, improvements to land."

His love of user fees over taxes per se got him in trouble with no less a libertarian luminary than Ron Paul, after Sarvis skylarked about the possibility of a mileage-based user fee to make users of roads directly pay for them. (Virginia's transportation bills lately have been moving more toward general taxes to finance roads.) Since most versions of such a mileage-based tax require government GPS units in our cars to measure miles, Sarvis was accused of specifically advocating that privacy-damaging policy, even though he never said so explicitly and actually thought a mere odometer reading could be a close-enough measure.

Sarvis explained his position on health care in a post-election interview: "The idea was to switch the focus of spending from comprehensive expensive programs to subsidies and catastrophic insurance," he says. "Then on the state regulatory side to increase the supply of health care professionals and services through licensing reform, getting rid of certificates of public need…but a lot of what I talked about [on MSNBC] were the federal regulations we have to get away from…I was the only candidate talking about the root causes of the health care problem rather than just talking about Medicaid expansion."

Arthur DiBianca, co-founder of Libertarian Booster PAC, says he personally found Sarvis not as much of a hardcore libertarian firebrand as he would have liked, but admits Sarvis' milder, calmer tone may have helped with Virginia voters. But "it also helped Sarvis that the Virginia race was one of the only big political shows of the year and he was the most interesting thing about that race, which got him big free press coverage, very unusual for a Libertarian. He was also helped by the fact that McAuliffe and Cuccinelli were both assholes."

While his campaign ended up raising only around $200,000 in direct contributions overall, Sarvis says money really picked up with the good polls and positive press: "It really snowballed toward the end; October was our biggest month. We brought in something like $80 grand from October 1-23, then from the 24th to Election Day another sizable amount." But much of it came too late for Sarvis' campaign to do anything in terms of classic ground game, phone banking, or get out the vote efforts; in the end the campaign was largely one of personal appearances and media.

Sarvis says he's "definitely interested" in running for office again, though he isn't sure at what level or when. He is already embarked on a plan to help the Virginia LP recruit candidates for state Senate seats opening in the coming year, and wants to get them fielding candidates in every congressional district. Benedict, the executive director of the national LP and founder of Libertarian Booster PAC, hopes Sarvis will run for office again, but understands running with the LP can seem like "you go spend money and time and there's no prize; you don't get money from special interests looking for favors, big corporations aren't giving money since you don't win so you don't get to hand out favors. So you do it because you believe in a cause. You can only ask so much from people."

DiBianca of Libertarian Boosters thinks the lessons of the Sarvis candidacy for the LP are clear: "You have to show up. We did not know in advance Sarvis would turn out this well, we didn't expect him to turn out this well. We need to take every opportunity to put someone on the ballot because we don't know in advance who will turn out great. Also, we learned it's valuable to have a broad message," not to zero in on only fiscal or only social issues. DiBianca also thinks the immediate future of the Party will likely rely more on nimble PACs rather than the LP's often tottery official apparatus.

Moulton of the Virginia LP admits that the likelihood of Virginia pulling so much outside money in 2014 is slim, lacking a race like the governor's to draw national attention. But he thinks both locally and nationally that Sarvis' attention and success will inspire other serious people to run, and maybe inspire some who might have otherwise run as independents to run under the LP banner. Ironically, Moulton thinks the animosity toward Sarvis may have harmed some of the six downticket LP state House of Delegates candidates in Virginia, who were constantly fielding anti-Sarvis rage on social media and in person. Regardless, Sarvis actually narrowly beat Cuccinelli in a few precincts in gentrifying areas of Richmond, and strongly outperformed his own state average in Henrico County around Richmond, Eric Cantor's territory.

Sarvis' campaign manager, John LaBeaume, was especially delighted by the uncoordinated fundraising from Purple PAC, a SuperPAC for libertarian-leaning politicians of any party run by former Cato Institute president Ed Crane, who famously stopped supporting the LP 30 years ago. Purple PAC announced it would spend $300,000 on Sarvis ads late in the campaign. LaBeaume thinks with that, and with inroads Sarvis made with a younger wave of student libertarian activists, that the Libertarian brand as attached to the LP itself may see a renaissance in the wake of Sarvis, after years when the LP seemed the least significant part of the larger libertarian movement.

"The Sarvis campaign has strengthened the Libertarian brand in the electoral realm more than any but a handful in the history of the Party," LaBeaume says, looking back to "low tax liberal" Ed Clark's near one percent in the 1980 presidential race for the LP. "We got more of the large libertarian policy and donor community interested in a substantive way in a mainstream but principled Libertarian candidate, and that is very encouraging in moving forward for the whole movement, in the electoral realm, in student activism, and the think tank policy realm."