Photo credit: MyFoxDC.com
by James A. Bacon
Ask Robert Sarvis if he thinks he really has a chance to win the race for the U.S. Senate, and he won’t insult your intelligence with a lot of bogus reasons why he just might be able to pull it off. Even though the Libertarian candidate garnered 6.5% last year in his run last year for governor, he acknowledges that many of his votes came from Virginians who just couldn’t stomach the Democratic and Republican nominees. The same cannot be said of his opponents this year. But he still makes a strong case why pulling the Libertarian lever won’t be wasted this fall: He’s building the Libertarian Party for the future.
I caught up with Sarvis a couple of weeks ago when he was in Richmond. We sat in a booth at Kuba Kuba, a great little Cuban restaurant in the Fan, and munched deep-fried plaintains. No one seemed to recognize him as the third most serious candidate for Senate this year. Perhaps the same could have been said of Republican Ed Gillespie as well, but the Republican candidate would have been accompanied by his campaign minions. Sarvis, who lives in Northern Virginia, was traveling alone. His incredibly low profile in early May did not augur especially well for his odds in the campaign but it was fine with me. We got to chat without interruption.
I was curious: Why was he running? Campaigning against Gillespie, a savvy Washington insider with access to boodles of cash, and Democrat Mark Warner, an entrenched senator who could tap millions in PAC money, was a political suicide mission. The two heavyweights could raise more moolah than Sarvis could dream of. They had professional campaign organizations. They had the backing of the Democratic and Republican party organizations. What did Sarvis have? A Rolodex of volunteers, an email list of mostly nickle-and-dime contributors, a Twitter account and a Facebook page with about 17,000 followers between the two of them.
Here is his argument: The Libertarian Party built considerable momentum last year — 6.5% was a darn good showing for a third party candidate in Virginia. He also snagged 15% of the vote among young people (18 to 29-year-olds). He wants to maintain that momentum. He may not win this election but if the youth is the future, libertarians can reasonably hope to fare better in the years ahead.
One advantage Sarvis does enjoy is great name recognition for a third-party candidate. He is taking advantage of that to build a stronger campaign organization than the one he had in 2013. Lots of people were involved but he had no campaign manager. “Last year,” he says, “we were flying by the seat of our pants.”
The campaign is bigger than him, he says. He was working to get Libertarians on the ballot in all of Virginia’s congressional districts. For the first time in its history the Libertarian Party of Virginia has recruited candidates for every congressional seat. (Gathering the 1,000 signatures from registered voters to get them on the ballot is a different matter.) Libertarians can stretch resources by sharing campaign literature and contact lists, and Sarvis wants to ensure that, at a minimum, each candidate has a website. As for renting mailing lists and email lists, he conceded, that was probably beyond the means of his campaign. “The lists cost money. We’re not playing at that level.”
That’s an understatement. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, as of March 31, Warner had shaken the trees for $7.2 million, Gillespie had scooped up $2.2 million and Sarvis had raised… $0. None of the big moneyed interests that bankroll political candidates are likely to support a Libertarian committed to shrinking the size and scope of government along with the size and scope of those moneyed interests’ influence on government. As far as I could tell, Sarvis had no particular plan for beating the bushes. While he is obviously intelligent and passionate, I did not detect the kind of hunger, drive and chutzpah that it takes to shake down donors for thousands of dollars.
Still, Sarvis may fare well again as the “None of the Above” candidate. Public approval of the two-party duopoly continues to plumb new lows, Congress as an institution ranks somewhere between drug dealers and child molesters in the popular esteem and, in the wake of Obamacare and the VA scandal, vast swaths of the electorate have lost faith in the competence of the federal government. “Last year, the candidates were the negatives,” said Sarvis. “This year it’s the federal government.” Both Warner, a senator, and Gillespie, a former lobbyist, are Washington insiders. Voters tired of a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee will cast a vote for the Libertarian.
Sarvis had not yet honed his key campaign themes. Refreshingly, he didn’t recite a litany of highly honed talking points. But there was no sign of the message discipline characteristic of successful candidates.
I shared my conviction that most Virginians are “natural libertarians,” pragmatists who just want to live their lives and be left alone, with no great desire to impose their views and values on others. Virginians are worried that government spending is out of control but they are not doctrinaire Libertarians who hew to radical notions such as scrapping Social Security, privatizing the military or legalizing heroin. Sarvis agreed. “We want to show our pragmatic, moderate side,” he said. He wants to position himself as someone interested in governing. Continue reading