Arlington, Va When William F. Buckley, running as the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, was asked what he would do if he won, he replied: “Demand a recount.” Robert Sarvis, Libertarian Party candidate for governor of Virginia, will not need to do this.
Hours before Gallup reported record nationwide support — 60 percent — for a third party to leaven politics, Sarvis was declared ineligible for the final debate for gubernatorial candidates because he fell a tad short of a 10 percent average in recent polls. None of this disturbed his leisurely enjoyment of a tuna-burger lunch before sauntering off in search of free media, about the only kind he can afford.
Equanimity is his default position and almost his political platform: Why be agitated when your frenzied adversaries are splendidly making your case about the poverty of standard political choices? The Democratic and Republican candidates, Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, each say no good can come from electing the other fellow; Sarvis amiably agrees with both.
In Sarvis, the man and the moment have met. He is running at a time of maximum distrust of established institutions, including the two major parties. He has little money but McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have spent millions of dollars on broadcast ads making each other repulsive to many Virginians who surely feel as Will Rogers did: “You got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” Furthermore, the partial shutdown of the government especially annoyed Sarvis’ state, which has the nation’s second highest per capita federal spending (Alaska is first) — northern Virginia is a dormitory for federal workers and southern Virginia’s military installations include the world’s largest naval complex.
At the national level, the most potent third-party candidates have had vivid personalities and burning issues: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, taming corporations; Strom Thurmond in 1948, asserting regional grievances relating to race; George Wallace in 1968, venting class and cultural resentments; Ross Perot in 1992, shrinking the federal deficit. Sarvis is more bemused than burning.
During an intermission in the telecast of a notably disagreeable McAuliffe-Cuccinelli debate, viewers heard from their television sets a woman’s voice asking, “Can’t vote for these guys?” Then Sarvis’ voice:
“Like you, I can’t vote for Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow-minded social agenda. I want a Virginia that’s open-minded and welcoming to all. And like you, I don’t want Terry McAuliffe’s cronyism either, where government picks winners and losers. Join me, and together we can build a Virginia that’s open-minded and open for business.”
McAuliffe is an enthusiast for, and has prospered from, government “investments” in preferred industries, which is a recipe for crony capitalism. Cuccinelli is a stern social conservative, an opponent of, among other things, gay marriage. Marriage equality interests Sarvis (whose mother is Chinese) because his wife is African-American, so his marriage would have been illegal in Virginia before the exquisitely titled 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia.
Sarvis, who is 37 and may look that old in a decade or so, graduated from Harvard with a mathematics degree, earned a law degree from New York University and clerked in Mississippi for a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. After a spell as a mathematics graduate student at Berkeley, Sarvis worked for a San Francisco tech startup, then earned a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University. In 2011, he ran as a Republican against the state Senate majority leader, a 31-year incumbent. Outspent 72-to-1, Sarvis got 36 percent of the vote.
He must scrounge for media attention because he fares poorly in polls that reinforce the judgment that he is not newsworthy. But he is.
William Buckley won only 13.4 percent of the 1965 mayoralty vote but he energized a growing constituency and legitimized the practice of voting outside the confines of traditional political choices. Five years later, the New York Conservative Party’s U.S. Senate candidate — Buckley’s brother Jim — was elected with 38.8 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Third-party candidacies are said to be like bees — they sting, then die. Still, Sarvis is enabling voters to register dissatisfaction with the prevailing political duopoly. Markets are information-generating mechanisms, and Virginia’s political market is sending, through Sarvis, signals to the two durable parties.
“The saddest life,” said the dyspeptic H.L. Mencken, “is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful.” Sarvis will escape both fates.