With libertarian shut out, surveillance, cronyism removed from U.S. Senate race debate


THE THIRD OPTION: Libertarian Robert Sarvis is eager to challenge status quo politics in Washington.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchog.org, Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND, Va.—Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie face off on Saturday in the first U.S. Senate debate of the year, the setting the four-star Greenbrier Hotel and Resort nestled in the mountains of West Virginia.

But something will be missing, in addition to the average Virginians who can’t make it out to West Virginia for the debate, run and attended by lawyers of the Virginia Bar Association.

The third candidate on the November ballot for U.S. Senate, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, won’t be on stage.

For Sarvis, who garnered 6.5 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 2013 and is polling at 5 percent as of this week’s Roanoke College poll, it’s a bit of déjà vu.

“It’s very frustrating,” Sarvis told Watchdog.org. “I think this year it’s more inconceivable than last year. Last year, arguably, you could say, Oh, they had no idea who I was. … But this year, after voters voted for me 6.5 percent, it kind of just shows that the Virginia Bar Association, all of these debates, have some interest in maintaining their own influence within the two incumbent parties. And they don’t want to do anything that would rock the boat and undermine their influence over the elected legislators.”

The VBA has been hosting major debates since 1985. When Sarvis wasn’t invited last year, Marilyn Shaw, communications director for the VBA, said his campaign “did not meet the minimum criteria.”

Though Shaw wouldn’t say exactly what those criteria are, she did say there are 10 of them, one of which is polling performance. NBC 12 has reported VBA’s criteria say the candidate “must have a reasonable chance of being elected.”

“Certainly for Sarvis it would a benefit (to debate), and for most third parties it’s always sort of like a chicken-and-egg question,” Harry Wilson, professor and director at Roanoke College’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research, told Watchdog.org. “Do they not get attention from you and me because their views really are held by a very small number of people, or are their views held by a small number of people and support very low because you and I don’t’ pay attention to them? It is a legitimate chicken-and-egg question. I’m in the camp of, sort of both of them are correct.”

Sarvis, joined by other third-party candidates, is suing Virginia’s State Board of Elections because Virginia law — written, of course, by Republicans and Democrats — requires a Republican and Democrat take the top two ballot spots.

Wilson said Sarvis is doing well to be polling at 5 percent, and major party candidates don’t want to be threatened.

“I think it’s almost a given that any third-party candidate would do better — they’re not going to win — but they would do better if they were included in debates and things like that, and that’s why major party candidates on both sides try to keep them out,” Wilson said.

The Roanoke College poll has Warner, who enjoys favorable ratings in Virginia, well ahead of Gillespie — by 25 points.

Warner and Gillespie have been entrenched in the politics of Washington, D.C., for a while, Sarvis said. Warner joined the U.S. Senate in 2009, after serving as Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006. Gillespie chaired the Republican National Committee and worked as counselor to the George W. Bush administration.

Partly because of that vast political experience, issues such as surveillance of U.S. citizens by police and government and cronyism may stay virtually untouched in debates and public discourse between Warner, Gillespie and their campaigns.

“It’s really unfortunate for voters,” Sarvis said. “This is all about giving voters an opportunity to hear about all the issues that matter. I don’t think there’s going to be much talk about surveillance in the debates, because Gillespie was a part of the administration that started it, and Mark Warner has voted for many of the things that made it possible, and against some of the things that would have reined it in.”

Sarvis holds a law degree from New York University, a master’s degree in economics from George Mason University, a master’s degree in mathematics from Cambridge University, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvard University. He has practiced law, worked in the tech industry and has never held public office.

So, he doesn’t really fit into a box.

In the face of the border crisis, Sarvis advocates making it easier for immigrants who want to work to come to the U.S. legally.

“The best thing to do is to focus on the fundamental problem, which is we need to greatly increase the number of people we’re willing to take,” Sarvis said. “And once that happens, then people aren’t going to push all of their kids across the border. What they’re going to do is, those who want to come here are going to plan a more sensible approach to it.”

Sarvis believes many of the country’s immigration problems have to do with the war on drugs. Legalizing pot at the federal level, and lowering penalties for harder drugs, was a focus of his campaign last year and is again this year. The drug war is creating failed states in Latin America and causing people to flee to America, he said, and the situation has led to an insecure border and an entire industry of people with the purpose of finding “holes in our security, in our border.”

Still, the federal government needs to keep criminals from immigrating and hand welfare programs over to states to use discretion for benefits for immigrants — or American-born citizens, for that matter, he said.

Sarvis is a strong advocate of gay marriage.

He hasn’t emphasized abortion or pro-choice issues, one way or another. He has disagreed with Virginia’s law requiring an ultrasound before an abortion and is open to abortion in cases of rape and incest.

To Sarvis, less government regulation means more innovation and more jobs.

And even when it comes to transportation, he thinks moving toward a user-pays system that involves tolls or a miles-driven tax involving odometer readers — since the state already knows how much you’ve driven in a year from the state inspection — is better than the current funding system.

Climate change, Sarvis said, is a real, scientific problem, but the government shouldn’t regulate everything or raise revenue through the EPA.

For Sarvis, it all boils down to a simple phrase — Virginia, open-minded and open for business.

But without a non-Washington, third-party candidate in debates, Sarvis fears things like NSA spying and corporate welfare won’t even be addressed. In a nutshell, Sarvis wants to be able to shake up status quo politics in D.C., for the better.

“I’ll be championing things like term limits, changing the way we vote for ballot access and things like that, that will make the political system more competitive,” Sarvis said. “With more competitive elections, we at least get a better discussion of the issues that matter.”

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau.