Libertarian Crashes the Party on Virginia’s Debate Night

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talk before a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in McLean, Va.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Sept. 25, 2013, 5:15 p.m.

Halfway through Wed­nes­day even­ing’s con­ten­tious gubernat­ori­al de­bate in Vir­gin­ia, a fe­male voice asked a ques­tion that was likely go­ing through the minds of many voters: “Can’t vote for either of these guys?”

Liber­tari­an Robert Sar­vis, who has been gain­ing in re­cent polling thanks to voters’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with both of the main party can­did­ates, ran his first 30-second tele­vi­sion ad dur­ing the de­bate, tout­ing him­self as an­oth­er op­tion. Com­ing on the heels of more than 30 minutes of heated de­bate — in which Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Terry McAul­iffe ac­cused his Re­pub­lic­an rival, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli, of sup­port­ing a so­cial agenda that is bad for wo­men while Cuc­cinelli ac­cused McAul­iffe of want­ing to sell Vir­gin­ia to the highest bid­der — Sar­vis cri­ti­cized both can­did­ates, of­fer­ing Vir­gini­ans a third choice.

“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,” Sar­vis said in the spot. “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.”

While each of the ma­jor party can­did­ate’s neg­at­ives have ris­en over the past few months of an in­creas­ingly nasty cam­paign — 36 per­cent of voters said they had an un­fa­vor­able opin­ion of McAul­iffe in this week’s Wash­ing­ton Post-Abt SRBI poll, and a full 47 per­cent of voters had an un­fa­vor­able opin­ion of Cuc­cinelli — Sar­vis has be­gun to see an up­tick among voters clearly dis­sat­is­fied with both of their op­tions. The Post poll showed him with 10 per­cent sup­port among Vir­gin­ia voters in a three-way con­test, while a WRC-TV/NBC News/Mar­ist poll con­duc­ted around the same time showed him with 8 per­cent sup­port.

Sar­vis was not in­vited to par­ti­cip­ate in the de­bate, which was pro­duced by WRC-TV in Wash­ing­ton and aired on NBC af­fil­i­ates throughout the com­mon­wealth.

The ad was smart and well-timed, but it offered little in­form­a­tion about Sar­vis him­self, who sup­ports “re­spons­ible drug use” and gay mar­riage. It also neg­lected to men­tion his party af­fil­i­ation un­til the word “Liber­tari­an” ap­peared on-screen at the end of the ad.

A third-party can­did­acy is al­ways an up­hill battle, par­tic­u­larly for a can­did­ate like Sar­vis, who is not well known and has little in the way of money or a ground or­gan­iz­a­tion. But Sar­vis could pull in double-di­git sup­port in Novem­ber, po­ten­tially in­flu­en­cing the out­come of what is likely to be a low-turnout con­test.

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