Robert Sarvis: Libertarian for the U.S. Senate from Virginia

The surprisingly wavemaking L.P. gubernatorial candidate strives to be a surprisingly wavemaking Senate candidate


Robert Sarvis
Carissa Divant

Robert Sarvis made the biggest splash for the Libertarian Party in many years with his surprising 6.6 percent—nearly 145,000 votestotal in 2013's Virginia gubernatorial race. The former tech entrepreneur and lawyer did this even while making Republicans angry that he was allegedly stealing votes from their man Ken Cuccinelli, dodging bogus accusations of being a secret Democratic Party plant, and annoying some of the Libertarian hardcore by answering questions about health care by taking about policies that stymied competition rather than just repeating "repeal Medicare!"

Sarvis is trying politics again, running for U.S. Senate in Virginia, in a race likely to include incumbent Democrat Mark Warner, vying for his second Senate term, and Republican Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) chair and consummate insider. (Gillespie does not yet have the nomination, which doesn't come officially until a state Republican convention in June, but seems to have it locked.)

Sarvis, who tells me he won't be working any other jobs for the duration of the campaign, is a calm, rational guy, not given to the emotionally charged side of the small government message. This served him well in the statewide race; we'll see how it plays in a Senate race that might get more national attention. It is telling that he treats "rational" and "freedom-centric" as synonymous. True, but does it play at the voting booth? We'll find out in November. Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Sarvis by phone last week.

Reason: Running for office again—why are you putting yourself through this?

Robert Sarvis: The same thing that motivated me last year. I see policy being pretty abysmal and see both Republicans and Democrats not at all moving toward more rational policies, more freedom-centric policies. The front runner in the Republican race and the Democratic incumbent are not going to change their offerings, so I just felt the opportunity was here to build on the momentum from last year and reach more people with a message of freedom in economic and personal lives.

Reason: What's the story with your major party opponents?

Sarvis: Mark Warner, he's a former governor and completing his first term. He's pretty much been a big government guy, going along with all Obama's major spending programs and new programs. As governor he was responsible for a very large tax increase in 2004 and as senator he's been behind all expansions of government.

The Republican likely is Ed Gillespie. He is basically a big government lifelong Washington GOP insider, a former RNC chair, a former lobbyist on behalf of large companies. He was a subordinate in the George W. Bush administration, was big on Romney's campaign. He's the status quo in the GOP.

Reason: You've been trying to use your profile to grow the Libertarian Party as a whole. Talk about what you're trying to do in Virginia.

Sarvis: I've been trying to recruit a whole slate of candidates. It helps the L.P. and the libertarian message to have more candidates around the state; the idea being to maximize our effect this year and make sure that every voter in every part of the state has a Senate and House candidate to vote for. We have off-year state elections in 2015, all state legislative seats go up, so it will be nice to set the L.P. up for a large contingent of state and local candidates [for 2015].

So I've been looking through who was enthusiastic about my campaign last year and trying to find people even remotely interested in running, letting them know it is doable to run for Congress.

I will help them, campaign with them, we're gonna work like a team. That helps people get over how difficult it is to get your name out [as a third party candidate]. Each opportunity I get to campaign, if there's media coverage I'll make sure the media is noting the fact we also have House candidates out there, trying to use whatever name recognition I have to help them to build [the party at large].

Reason: Have you begun campaigning in earnest yet?

Sarvis: We are going to be doing as much fulltime campaigning as we can, and right now are trying to build a team and build an organization that's more structured than last year, a bigger team that's more professionalized and more effective.

I'm getting significantly more [media] mentions this time [at a comparative point in the campaign]. I started working in total obscurity last year and this year reporters clearly [already know I exist]. They are still focusing mostly on the other two but [usually are] at least mentioning my presence; there has been some reaching out for comment on certain things [which I expect will] increase through the course of the campaign. Once we're past the primaries and ballot access [and the focus is on] policy, we'll have a real chance to distinguish ourselves as more responsible, more rational, more in line with what voters want.

June 10 is the signature gathering deadline. Each congressional candidate needs 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters in their district and I have to get 10,000 [statewide]. It's always a close call at the end. Ballot access is time consuming, resource intensive, and the [state L.P.] has 10, 11 candidates to worry about in addition to me. I think we'll make the ballot, I'll make it, and a vast majority [of the lower-ticket candidates will make it]. We've got no national help [from the L.P.] though some of the local affiliates are helping with signature gathering.

Reason: I saw Ed Gillespie talking about how the GOP needed to appeal more to the under-30 voter in this election.

Sarvis: Exit polls [from my governor's run last year] said 15 percent of the 18-29 crowd [went for me]. I think Republicans have a really hard sell [to the young]. They are kind of obsolete. Young people are really turned off by the GOP approach to civil issues. Both Republicans nor Democrats are awful for the situation of young people, with large debt transfers of wealth from young to old, so all the libertarian policies are very attractive [to young voters].

Reason: What are the main issues you want to run on in this Senate race?

Sarvis: I think the economy is the biggest. The great recession, and unemployment levels, in many ways is caused by government policies and when it comes to longer-term economic growth, we have structural issues hampering the economy, with regulatory things that kill job creation and business activity.  Increasing costs of hiring, an incredible uncertainty about the future of policy.

At the federal level, this is a much different race for me than last year, issues like foreign interventionism and immigration are really important. Democrats are only able to get away with calling themselves pro-immigrant in contrast to Republicans. I look at [the Democrats] as having a hugely protectionist constituency in labor and Libertarians have the responsibility to take the issue and run with it. Immigration is important for economic growth and improving living conditions of people around the world, allowing people to live to their maximum potential, allowing them to come to a free society. Northern Virginia is very diverse, and I'll have a good time reaching out to those voters.

And defense spending: In Virginia a huge portion of the economy depends on federal expenditures and the defense industry, so I want to talk about how to reduce defense spending and I have to be up front about why I believe it and not try to pander to people reliant on the defense industry.

There is a role for the Defense Department and the Norfolk area has a wonderful resource in the bay there, so it's a natural place for the Navy to be. It's not like it's just going to pack up and move entirely. With defense spending, we need to recognize that incredible spending can't just continue on and on, so the question is do you want Republicans and Democrats deciding [how to ramp back on defense on old-fashioned political grounds] or someone taking a more rational approach?

Reason: How will you deal with liberty-minded Republicans worrying that your presence or vote totals might harm the Republicans' chances of regaining a Senate majority?

Sarvis: I think last year's results are fairly clear: I probably brought to the polls a lot more people that if I hadn't been there would have voted for the Democrat than the Republican. This whole "stealing votes" issue gives me an opportunity to bring up things like instant runoff voting and range voting.

I think that liberty-leaning Republicans have no reason to invest in another big government Republican. Similarly on the Democratic side, people in favor of getting rid of corporate welfare and cronyism, if they want real drug policy reform, immigration liberalization, they should vote for me.

If the Senate is up for grabs, looks close to 50-50, that increases the importance of looking outside the two-party system. I'm just gonna make the argument that we are one out of 100 senators and what difference would it make sending another Republican or another Democrat? The way to make the biggest difference is to send a Libertarian. That immediately changes the game.

Reason: What are your fundraising expectations? [Gillespie and Warner are already each collecting over $2 million a quarter]

Sarvis: I have no idea about uncoordinated stuff. As far as direct donations, we started sending out letters and emails but it's a little early to tell [about the response]. My assumption is I'll have a much harder time raising money compared to last year, since there are so many other races to compete with. For the governor's run, I took in a little over $200,000.

I have no minimum in mind I think I have to raise. We'd like to raise a lot of money, but I take the approach of doing the best with whatever we get.

I may be getting a full time staff member very soon, that's being hammered out now. It's still all volunteers of varying degrees of time. It's hard to say the number of total active volunteers. We sent out a request for help with ballot petitioning, and a lot of people start helping without letting us know beforehand. By July I'll have a better sense how it's going in building a network.

Reason: If you get funded enough for an ad campaign, what do you expect it to say?

Sarvis: We've brainstormed, and if there's only money for one it would be more generalized, asking people to take a chance on us because doing the same thing we've done for the past 50 years is not working and making the argument that we've made over and over again, which is in this race certainly the two parties have become the same, these two big government [parties], and it's doing no good to send one back to the Senate.

Social media has to be huge part of our strategy. We do plan to do more with YouTube, continue what we've done with Facebook and Twitter and explore other avenues to reach people.

Reason: The Richmond Times Dispatch did a fact check thing on a controversial tweet from you: "Did you know U.S. population growth is at its lowest since the Great Depression? RT if you support liberalizing our immigration laws." Why is that an important issue to you?

Sarvis: It's not population growth per se, though I am a libertarian who believes more people is a fine thing, as is freedom of movement.  But I wrote that for a couple of reasons. One is that we could certainly stand to have more population growth, part of the reason it's down is because of the bad economy and families already here choosing not to have more kids. We have less immigration in part because of a bad economy.

It also points to the idea that population growth is something we can have more of in regard to the generational impact of entitlement spending. If we want to transition from an intergenerational transfer model to one more about investing in your own self, your own retirement model, it's a huge transition cost and so one of the ways to soften that blow is [increasing population through immigration]. There are a lot of benefits to doing that.

Reason: You've got a couple of big national issues as a Senate candidate that were maybe less important for your state governor's race: health care and foreign policy. How will you approach them?

Sarvis: I generally like to stick to basic principles. A big part of the problem in health care on both federal and state levels are regulations that totally mess up the marketplace, so we have to have a unified approach in my view. I don't want to propose a specific model of a system that would imply that that system and no other is what's acceptable. I'd certainly argue we need lots of deregulation of the health care sector, that can get us enormous benefits and I'll try to bring up telecom deregulation and expanding the ability to reach poor people with low-cost services. Not just technical innovation but business model innovation, there's way too little of that. A lot of that is because it's so highly regulated, there's less competition, the number of doctors is fairly stagnant, we license nurses to keep them from doing expanded scope of practice. There are so many ways to expand competition and innovation.

As for foreign policy, my general message is that we try to do too much by force and we think we know too much about other countries and cultures and we try to influence their behavior too much. A better approach would be to lead by example, have a free society at home, free trade with all nations, try not to be a world policeman, not to give countries a false sense of security. One reason we have countries left in the lurch with bully neighbors [is the U.S.'s] implicit promise to do something when in fact it makes no sense for us to be involved, certainly not militarily. [If countries] assume we will come to their rescue they are not investing in their own defense, not investing in creating common protective umbrellas in their own region that creates weakness that bullies can thrive upon.

I am fairly non-interventionist though I keep an open mind. Though there is an inordinate amount of money on defense spending and I think the direct foreign aid we give is malinvestment, I'd much rather foreign aid be the organic "foreign aid" of remittances from families [working in the U.S. sent] back home. That's a much better model for helping actual people rather than governments.

About Iran, I can't say our current approach is working, I don't know what one would even judge to be "working" but I just think my sense is that the Iranian people are very young, 80 percent under 35, and they are exposed to a fair amount of Western culture and commerce, they are individuals and the animus against the U.S. [government] as opposed to the American people is an important aspect. So more engagement, more commerce, is a better approach rather than isolation and constant demonization—in both directions, we are [condemned as the] Great Satan but how much of that is a product of meddling for 50 years? So I'm kind of against, not really a fan of, throwing U.S. weight around [the globe].

Reason: Any lessons you think will carry over from your last run to make this one work better for you?

Sarvis: Certainly, I learned the need for a more organized volunteer network, so I'd like to try and build that more effectively this year.

I also learned there is an enormous thirst for something different. People want to hear someone credible, who cares about issues, and is willing to tell you where they stand. Obviously the two party system is very strong. It's going to be uphill to get people past that, at the very least to get people behind us because of issues and policies and lead us to increase [the L.P.'s] share or compel the other parties to think deeply about [changing their] policies.