The Race To Watch Is Virginia Governor

Candidates for governor of Virginia, from left: Ken Cuccinelli, Robert Sarvis and Terry McAuliffe.

Candidates for governor of Virginia, from left: Ken Cuccinelli, Robert Sarvis and Terry McAuliffe.

With all the talk about Hillary Clinton possibly running for president and the potential Republican challengers, it is easy to forget that the next presidential election is still more than three years off. The interesting politics right now are in Virginia. And the most interesting race features Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli vying for governor, with third-party upstart Robert Sarvis ready to upend politics as usual.

Virginia holds its executive elections in odd-numbered years, out-of-sync with national elections. In November, voters in the commonwealth will choose a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Unfortunately for the cause of women, Virginia remains very much a good old boys club. All of the candidates for the big three offices are men.

Politically, they range from a ludicrously conservative, black tea party darling running for lieutenant governor to a predictably dull Democrat running for attorney general. But the best political entertainment for the dollar (Virginia doesn’t limit campaign contributions) is at the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets. The gubernatorial candidates are avatars of national political movements.

Republican Cuccinelli, the current attorney general, represents the tea party arm of the GOP. He rejects the science of climate change and believes Virginia should continue outlawing oral and anal sex, gay or straight. Meanwhile, Democrat McAuliffe is a long-time Clinton family ally. He fancies himself a businessperson, albeit often a failed one.

Politicos will frame the race for governor as a precursor to 2016. But despite the Clinton-vs.-tea party dynamic this race seems to offer, each man is his own candidate, and each is damaged goods.

Cuccinelli has ties to the donor at the heart of a scandal that has trashed current Gov. Bob McDonnell’s reputation and future political prospects. “Cooch” also is dealing with an investigation into whether his office inappropriately advised natural gas companies.

McAuliffe has his own troubles. One of his recent business ventures, a green car company, is under federal investigation. “T-Mac” also is having a hard time shaking the fact that he is a carpetbagger and politico who is too slick by half.

The press and the polls frame a story that Virginians must choose between two terrible candidates, and they are not too thrilled about it. Both have high negatives and tepid support.

What you won’t hear much about in the media is that Cooch and T-Mac are not alone on the ballot. Libertarian Sarvis is running, too. Voters do have another option.

Sarvis has an impressive resume. He trained in mathematics at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge, he is a lawyer, and he holds an advanced degree in economics from George Mason University. He is a native Virginian, something neither Cooch nor T-Mac can claim.

Perhaps most interesting, Sarvis is white and has a black wife. In some corners of the commonwealth, such relationships still elicit angry whispers. Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, after all, and interracial marriage was illegal just a few short decades ago. In his first campaign ad, Sarvis acknowledged that history and drew the parallel to today’s struggle for same-sex marriage equality.

Sarvis is not without his own negatives. He has never held elected office, and his campaign carries the usual libertarian policy baggage that tends to turn people off at both ends of the political spectrum.

Still, if a third-party candidate cannot compete this year, when the two major party candidates are such disliked duds, the prospects of breaking two-party gridlock truly are dim.

By all indications, he is not gaining traction. Pollsters do not ask about him much, and when they do, he falls far behind the other two. Recent polls put his support at about 10 percent. The press barely mentions him, and debates and forums do not invite him. He cannot escape the vicious circle of third-party candidates. They do not get coverage because they do not have name recognition, and they cannot get name recognition because they do not get coverage.

As far as most Virginia voters know, it is still a two-man race. That might wind up being the real parallel to 2016.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image source: Assembled from Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign website, Terry McAuliffe’s campaign website, and the Libertarian Party website.

  • Jeff

    “By all indications, he [Robert Sarvis] is not gaining traction.”

    I have to disagree with Chris on this one. Keeping in mind all the inherent obstacles that a third-party candidate (especially a Libertarian) has to overcome in Virginia in order to become at least semi-relevant, I feel that Mr. Sarvis has done a decent job making himself known with the resources that he and his supporters have at their disposal. Media coverage of his campaign is growing and more people are taking him seriously as a candidate. Technically, he doesn’t need to win the governor’s race outright in order to achieve victory. If he gets 10% of the vote or higher in November, that will secure major party status for the Libertarian Party of Virginia at least until the next statewide general election.

  • Actually, ten percent is very significant for any third party candidate to draw in a poll in Virginia. If Sarvis could get funds for even a small media buy, he might prove a contender as he draws disgusted dems and tea party republicans too.

    • Jeff

      I agree, fundraising is the key here. How did Sarvis’s money bomb go?

  • Chris Trejbal

    Hi Sandy. You’re right, of course. ten percent is a big deal. At the least it might get him into the debates, and then he might gain some real traction.

    • Jeff

      Now I understand what your definition of “traction” is, at least in the political sense.

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