The 10 percent man: Just how high can Libertarian Robert Sarvis fly?

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Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo. Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo.

Here’s an interesting fact for you to chew on (courtesy of Geoffrey Skelley, posting on Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog): The last time an independent candidate came even slightly close to winning Virginia’s governorship was way back 1973, when Henry Howell came within 1.5 percentage points of besting Republican Mills Godwin. The confluence of events that led to that result, however, was sui generis. Both candidates were former Democrats; Godwin had switched parties out of ideological conviction, while Howell almost certainly changed his affiliation to “Independent” in order to avoid the taint of George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential campaign.

Other than that single anomaly, no recent independent gubernatorial candidate has been able to climb out of the single digits. Like it or not, the Republican/Democrat duopoly seems to have a death grip on the Old Dominion, and the chances of a third-party candidate making it into the executive mansion seems very slight indeed.

Still, if it was going to happen, 2013 would seem like a promising year. After all, neither of the major party candidates is winning any popularity contests, and the traditionally low turnout for Virginia’s off-year elections presents a real opportunity for a charismatic outsider.

Unfortunately, Libertarian standard-bearer Robert Sarvis—this year’s “none of the above” candidates—is barely an outsider, and decidedly uncharismatic. A former Republican who lost his last race (against state Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw) by 26 points, Sarvis has a low-key, professorial demeanor that seems more likely to induce mass narcolepsy than mass hysteria.

Still, a large segment of the voting populace is obviously dissatisfied with the mainstream choices, and Sarvis certainly offers an intriguing alternative.

A onetime software engineer, math teacher, and lawyer with a storied academic history (his CV features degrees from Harvard, New York University, George Mason University, and the University of Cambridge, England), Sarvis has the sort of something-for-everyone political philosophy that made Ron Paul such a hit among college stoners and survivalists alike.

A fiscal and pro-gun conservative who wants to reduce both state income and business taxes, Sarvis is also a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage, supports legalizing marijuana (and decriminalizing other drugs), thinks we should be drilling for oil off the Virginia coast, and wants to privatize all state-owned liquor stores. Oh yeah —he also recently revealed that he and his wife decided to get married due to an unplanned pregnancy, and that he would like Virginia’s lawmakers to “take four years off” focusing on abortion because the public is so “radically divided on a metaphysical issue.”

Heady stuff, that. Some would also argue that it’s completely incoherent, as a governing philosophy. But whether it appeals to you or not, there is certainly a constituency for a iconoclastic thinker like Sarvis, as evidenced by his steady rise in the polls.

And while he never quite reached the 10 percent polling average necessary to participate in the official debates, it seems increasingly likely that Sarvis might actually buck the odds and break into the double digits on election day. And if that happens, then Libertarian party candidates will automatically be granted ballot access in all state and local contests through 2021. Sure, it’s not the governor’s chair, but it would be a significant accomplishment nonetheless, and one that would guarantee Sarvis a huge boost should he ever decide to run again.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.