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."