McLEAN, Va.—Halfway through the first prime-time debate for governor of Virginia, after Republican Ken Cuccinelli told voters that Democrat Terry McAuliffe was “the only F-rated candidate by the NRA running statewide,” the hosts had to cut to commercial. McAuliffe’s face and Cuccinelli’s face appeared on-screen, in mid-sentence gawks.
“Can’t vote for these guys?” asked a calming, disembodied female voice.
“Neither can I,” said a man standing nearby.
That man was Robert Sarvis, the 37-year-old software developer running for governor as a Libertarian. He was actually in the auditorium with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, looking on, because—well, you know, he’s the Libertarian candidate. It didn’t matter that he was polling at 10 percent or that Republicans are starting to wonder if he’s the reason that Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general since 2010, remains stubbornly behind a Democrat they can’t take seriously.
He’s not the problem. The race for Virginia’s governor is the only remaining 2013 race that looks at all competitive between the parties. Ending Spending PAC and Citizens United, which spent heavily and in vain last year, are back on the air in Virginia to warn voters of McAuliffe’s Cayman Islands money and his so-far-failed electric car company. Fast Terry (“the movie Terry McAuliffe doesn’t want you to see”) runs like a rough sequel to 2012’s anti-Romney ads, complete with hard-luck workers rueing the day they ever trusted this guy.
Ah, but McAuliffe has his own band of white Virginians in baseball caps who can stand in front of debris and talk about how disappointed they are. McAuliffe’s campaign has found them and put them on the air to decry how Cuccinelli’s office isn’t helping landowners being fleeced by fracking companies. Tom Steyer, an environmentalist who’s been burying Republicans or pro–Keystone XL Democrats with piles of cash, has spent $900,000 on anti-Cuccinelli ads. It’s all part of an air war meant to increase the negative favorable ratings of two candidates who had always borne high negatives. On the stage, Cuccinelli tried to remind viewers of his little-covered humanitarian side, like his work freeing an innocent man from prison—and then he and McAuliffe warred to portray each other as almost unbelievably crooked.
“The issue about the attorney general and Star Scientific, let's be clear,” said McAuliffe, dodging a question about his tax returns to talk about Cuccinelli’s taking gifts from a struggling Republican donor. “Star Scientific owed the state $1.7 million. This suit languished for two years, for nearly two years. Now instead of the attorney general, as I say, going after that, bringing that money back to Virginia taxpayers, he was being taken to New York City. He was being taken to a Smith Mountain home, a lake resort. He spent time and his staff stayed at his house in Richmond. He took $18,000 worth of gifts. He bought stock in the company.”
“It's pretty rich to have the guy who rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, sold seats on Air Force One, was an un-indicted co-conspirator in a Teamsters election law money laundering, talk about ethics now,” said Cuccinelli.
The negativity opened a door for Sarvis. As he walks around the Capital One Conference Center, a typical northern Virginia corporate castle of glass surrounded by asphalt, reporters ask him sympathetic questions about what he’d add to the race. What if he’d been onstage? “It would have been a much more positive debate,” he said.
Sarvis doesn’t really get into the specifics of McAuliffe or Cuccinelli’s scandals. He prefers to call McAuliffe a “crony capitalist,” and to shake his head at how right-wing Cuccinelli is. I wonder what Sarvis thought of Cuccinelli’s lawsuits to pry emails from climate scientists. (Cuccinelli started this lawsuit a few months after taking office.) Climate change—that’s an issue a lot of wealthy libertarians have time and coin to discredit.
“I thought that lawsuit was politicizing the attorney general’s office,” said Sarvis. “You can disagree with him, and be a climate skeptic, but don’t use the attorney general’s office to carry it out. I respect climate skeptics, if they’re based on science, but I generally accept the science. I just ask: What is the policy response?”
That’s not the “conservative” position anymore. And that’s Cuccinelli’s problem: He might actually be too conservative to win even a negative-ad standoff against McAuliffe. There were warning signs. The last time the Virginia GOP really blew a winnable statewide election, it nominated Oliver North for U.S. Senate in 1994. Chuck Robb, the incumbent, survived the Republican wave and a minor cocaine party scandal because J. Marshall Coleman left the GOP to run as an independent. The last presidential primary in Virginia pitted Mitt Romney against Ron Paul—nobody else, because Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum bumbled their way off the ballot. The protest vote for Paul hit 41 percent, nearly twice as high as polls had predicted.
There was always bound to be some amorphous, independent/libertarian vote that would oppose a Democrat like Terry McAuliffe but didn’t want to back Ken Cuccinelli. Now that candidate exists, and Cuccinelli’s negatives are actually much lower than McAuliffe’s—by 20 points in one poll. Jennifer Rubin, the conservative Washington Post blogger, sat down with Sarvis and came away a fan. “He didn’t, to be frank, send out the ‘crazy’ vibe you get when talking to fringe third-party candidates,” she wrote. “He’s offering an alternative to voters who can’t abide either candidate and feel bad about not voting.”
After Wednesday’s debate, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli subjected themselves to short on-camera grillings with reporters. McAuliffe, who’s more naturally comfortable in front of the camera, spun away questions about whether he knew how the state constitutional amendment worked (“Of course I do!”) and how much his education policies would cost (“That’s why we need the Medicaid expansion”). Cuccinelli was asked whether Sarvis was cutting into his Republican vote.
“Look, I take everything going on in a race seriously,” said Cuccinelli. “You know, if you think in terms of libertarians, I've been one of the best defenders of liberty in the attorney general's office in a long, long time. Whether it was fighting Obamacare first, pushing back on federal regulations, or a lot of the civil libertarian positions I've had.” He asked reporters to look again at how he helped an innocent man find justice. “If you go back 10 years, I was breaking with Republicans, working with a Democrat, getting something called the writ of actual innocence. For liberty-minded voters, I have an awful lot to offer. Frankly, more than other candidates have for a long, long time.”
In the final six weeks of a governor’s race, one that Republicans expected to come down to competence, a Republican was begging libertarians not to desert him as his party thumbed the anti–Mitt Romney playbook.