The 10 Percenters 

With an eye on the third debate, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis draws the disillusioned.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Q: Why did the Libertarian fail algebra?

A: Because he refused to solve inequalities.

Robert Sarvis laughs a little and calls the joke unfair. "I'm not trying to dismantle the social safety net," he says during a two-minute version of Libertarian 101.

It's the morning after the second debate between gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, wasn't invited. He went anyway, wearing a name tag that read: "Upper Section Seating."

Though barred from the sandbox, Sarvis managed to get a word in that night. His campaign ran a 30-second television ad during the debate, breaking up the tired barbs between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli with a fed-up-sounding narrator asking, "Can't vote for these guys?"

"Well," Sarvis interjects, "I can't either."

Sarvis, who had $20,000 in his campaign account at the end of August, was polling at 10 percent before the spot ran. Its pitch-perfect timing was the only real news to come out of the debate. If Sarvis still pulls double-digit poll numbers on Thursday, organizers of the final debate Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech say the rules allow him to participate.

"It will be a much more adult conversation," he predicts, sipping coffee on a couch at Urban Farmhouse in Shockoe Slip, fresh from an interview with CNN.

If Sarvis lands a spot on stage in the debate, it certainly will change the conversation. The kingmaker Democrat with no elected experience and the divisive Republican who already is one of the most powerful figures in the state would debate a first-time gubernatorial campaigner who wants to decriminalize marijuana, legalize gay marriage and put health care back under state control.

That platform brought a capacity crowd to the delightfully dingy, Grateful Dead-themed Cary Street Cafe last week. Dave Shiflett and Buttafly Vazquez performed "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Sarvis arrived looking a little frazzled. The candidate apologized for the traffic — "which we're trying to fix," he says — and took the stage. He said he wanted to talk to those gathered one-on-one, and that he'd be posing a question McAuliffe and Cuccinelli probably have never had to ask: "I want to know how you heard about the campaign."

For a glimpse at who makes up Sarvis' 10 percent, this was the place to be. There were the middle-aged white men — and their pixie-haircut, leather-jacket-wearing daughters. You had your golf visors, baseball caps and jaunty pork pie hats. It was a mix of the disenchanted, the enamored, the converted, the believers.

"You should be a Libertarian," one conversation went.

Overheard in another: "Rand has some good ideas."

It was unclear whether the speaker meant Ayn or Paul.

"I knew I didn't want to vote for the lesser of two evils," bar owner Robyn Chandler says. That became the night's refrain.

Sarvis stood near the door, greeting those waiting to meet him. At 37, wearing a hesitant smile and an oxford-cloth shirt with no tie, he blended in. Unassuming and intent, he could have been a policy adviser rather than a would-be governor.

Asked why he was there, a middle-aged man demurred, saying, "You should ask my daughter." Her name was Taylor Carpenter, 18, a self-identified Libertarian and newly registered voter.

"I believe there's a better choice than the two main parties," Carpenter says. "I wanted something different."

The room came into sharper focus. Women made up half the crowd, most — but not all— of which was white.

Repair-shop workers, economists and hipsters mingled. What's going on?

The combination of disaffected Republican voters and actual Libertarians has given Sarvis a significant boost in light of Cuccinelli's far-right views, says Deirdre Condit, chairwoman of political science and international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University's Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

"That creates the opportunity for a conservative, former Republican now-identified Libertarian candidate to step forward as a different version of Republicanism," Condit says. "And to be very attractive to that group who would normally be Republican voters."

As for the 20-something on a fixed-gear bike riding away from Cary Street Cafe with a Sarvis sign in hand? "Between the ages of 15 and 30, most people are moving away from authority figures," Condit says. "Sarvis is putting out a message to let people live their own lives, which is a very attractive position."

One thing Sarvis hasn't done, Condit notes, is take a strong position on abortion. He's called that debate distracting, and said that he and his wife, who became pregnant before they married, chose not to have one. His casually negative stance on the issue, Condit says, will turn away gender-gap voters who feel safer voting for McAuliffe.

"My gut tells me the election will tighten and that McAuliffe probably has the edge," Condit adds. "I think Sarvis ultimately hurts [Cuccinelli] and draws people away, but I think the negative campaigning will also hurt voter turnout. Cuccinelli has a small but deeply devoted electorate who will get to the polls."

Which might explain the Washington Examiner's report that the Cuccinelli camp made a call to the organizers of the third debate asking for a higher barrier for Sarvis. Cuccinelli's spokeswoman didn't return a request for comment.

If Sarvis carries 10 percent, Virginia law says a future Libertarian candidate won't have to spend time petitioning to get on the ballot.

"One of the things we want to do is create a blueprint for how to run an effective race," Sarvis says — "and ideally, win."

Exhibiting behavior typical of any candidate, Sarvis declines to say whether he's thinking of another run. But at the bar he was thronged by the curious and committed. As disaffection, Randian ideals and beer flowed, it was difficult to picture these 10 percenters ever again resigning themselves to the lesser of two evils. S

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