October 22, 2014 – Today’s political environment isn’t particularly healthy. Rather than spirited discussions about the issues of the day, elections often devolve into a case where voters feel they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Nowhere was this situation more pronounced in recent history than the 2013 gubernatorial election in Virginia.
Last year, Virginians had to choose between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat businessman Terry McAuliffe. Although elected by a wide margin in 2009, Cuccinelli was painted by the Democrats as an extreme right-wing zealot who wished to impose all sorts of moral restrictions on Virginians. The Republicans, by contrast, labeled McAuliffe as an unethical Washington fundraiser who didn’t really have any ties to the state.
Given that neither campaign offered any sort of positive message about their own candidate, Virginians were left in a difficult position, a choice of the lesser of two evils. During the cycle, I spoke with Democrats who strongly disliked McAuliffe; I met with Republicans who bemoaned that Cuccinelli was bringing down the statewide ticket. So many political activists were disappointed by their party’s nominee but were whipped into a frenzy about all the terrible woes that could befall the state should the other candidate get elected. I told Cuccinelli as much when I met with him in person in October, but this advice was unheeded. Although Dr. Paul visited the Commonwealth toward the end of the cycle to offer support for Cuccinelli, it was unable to erase the Cuccinelli campaign’s failure to promote anything positive about the attorney general.
In the middle of this storm sat the Libertarian Party nominee, Robert Sarvis. Now, typically Libertarian Party candidates do not fair well in statewide elections in the Commonwealth. For example, 2012 Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson received .8% of the vote and the party’s two statewide candidates in 2008 captured .29% and .55%. However, given the lack of enthusiasm for either of the major two party candidates, even among the rank and file of their base, and that Sarvis alone seemed to be the only candidate to advocate a position besides just opposition to his opponents, Sarvis won 6.52%, the highest showing for a third party candidate in the South in about 40 years. Although McAuliffe won the election, exit polls showed, perhaps surprisingly, that Sarvis drew a larger number of traditional liberal voters than conservative. The distaste for McAullife in Democratic circles was stronger than the disdain for Cuccinelli among Republicans. Disgust for both has helped swell the membership in the Libertarian Party of Virginia.
The take-home message for anyone, especially liberty-minded activists, ought to be clear. Voters, especially college students are growing increasingly attentive to the ideals of a limited government and personal responsibility. But until and unless candidates actually run on these values – instead presenting themselves as simply the lesser of two evils, as Cuccinelli and McAuliffe did last year – a considerable portion of liberty vote will gravitate toward this positive message irrespective of party label. That is the greatest lesson of the 2013 elections in Virginia. But has anyone learned it?