The students greeted the boyish-faced man in the charcoal suit as the stranger he is to Virginia politics.
“Hi — Rob Sarvis, running for governor,” the Libertarian said, wading into an auditorium of seniors at a Northern Virginia high school’s “Meet the Candidates” day.
Polite smiles. Handshakes. Giggles. Silence.
Sarvis sat alongside stand-ins for his opponents, Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli II, who apparently had more important places to be than a gathering of teenagers, many of them not old enough to vote.
Libertarian candidates have never made much of a dent in Virginia politics. But Sarvis, a software developer and lawyer who also has master’s degrees in math and economics, climbed as high as 10 percent in recent polls, causing no small amount of whiplash in Virginia political circles.
Because Sarvis is a virtual unknown, his rise is largely viewed as a reflection of voters’ disgust with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, who have trashed each other in a flood of negative advertising.
A bit more than a third of Virginians viewed McAuliffe unfavorably in a recent Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll after a months-long portrayal by Republicans as an untrustworthy huckster who is unqualified to run the state.
Nearly half of those polled — 47 percent — had a negative impression of Cuccinelli (R), the state’s attorney general, whom McAuliffe (D) has spent millions branding as an anti-women, anti-gay, tea party extremist.
Sarvis, 37, has no paid staff and no headquarters, and he hosts meetings at a Tropical Smoothie cafe near his Annandale townhouse. He has logged 13,000 miles campaigning in his family’s Dodge Caravan (with two safety seats in the back for his kids).
He’s not complaining about being a choice of last resort.
“Their awfulness creates all the opportunities,” he said of his opponents.
The electorate appears to be noticing.
Jean Case, the wife of AOL founder Steve Case who has donated large sums to Republicans and Democrats over the years, sent $2,000 to Sarvis’s campaign last week, the Libertarian’s (volunteer) spokesman and strategist, J.V. LaBeaume said.
While his opponents have raised millions, Sarvis had $19,000 in his account, according to his August campaign finance report. His recent expenditures included $4,250 to broadcast a single, 30-second TV ad in which he says, “I joined this race to give you a better choice.”
Emmett Graybill, 81, a retired political science professor who participated in The Post’s poll, struggled to recall Sarvis’s name — “Who’s that Libertarian guy?” he asked during an interview — then said the candidate’s best attribute is that he’s “not Cuccinelli, and he’s not McAuliffe.”
“Cuccinelli is honest, but his views are obnoxious, and the Democrat is terrible — there are too many shenanigans,” said Graybill, a Richmond resident. “The candidates are absolute disgraces to American politics.”
Carol Garvis, 72, a Lexington resident who also responded to poll, said her discomfort with the major-party candidates might propel her to vote for Sarvis even though she knows little about him.
“Can’t you find anyone better to be governor?” she asked.
After the initially cool reception at the candidates’ forum at South County High in Lorton, the students cheered when Sarvis told them that he understands the economy “certainly better” than Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. Former convicts, he said, should be allowed to vote, and no one should go to prison for a “mere marijuana offense,” a statement that elicited at least one high-pitched hoot from the rear of the darkened auditorium.
“I want to return to the idea that you are free to run your life,” Sarvis said. Afterward, more than two-dozen students surrounded him, passing around the candidate’s phone as they typed their names and numbers to sign up as volunteers.
“It’s nice to hear someone who’s not hard-line,” Jeremy Thomas, 17, told the candidate.
Sarvis, who grew up in Springfield, won $15,000 as a contestant in the 1994 Westinghouse Science Talent Search when he was a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax.
A Harvard graduate, he received a master’s in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, then a law degree from New York University before working at a Connecticut Avenue law firm, where he said he earned nearly $200,000 a year. Sarvis said he left the firm in 2008 to start a software company, from which he departed after a couple of years to get his master’s degree in economics at George Mason University. He is now unemployed, devoting himself fulltime to his campaign.
Sarvis said he became disgusted with the federal government’s response to the 2008 recession and housing meltdown, including the stimulus package and “unwise and cronyist” bailouts. His outrage, he said, inspired him to seek public office, first in 2011, when he ran as a Republican against veteran state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who beat him 62 to 36 percent.
Sarvis said he voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 election and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Barack Obama in 2008.
Asked if he supported Cuccinelli’s 2009 bid to become attorney general, Sarvis said: “I don’t actually remember. I actually have no idea.” His spokesman subsequently said that Sarvis voted for the Republican ticket that year. “Of course, he now regrets it,” LaBeaume said.
After his unsuccessful race against Saslaw, Sarvis abandoned the Republicans because, he said, the party was “so off the rails on social issues.”
Earlier this year, he was driving with his wife, Astrid, a pediatric resident at Inova Children’s Hospital, when he said he was thinking about running for governor. The announcement surprised her, she recalled, in part because their son is 3 years old and their daughter is 23 months old. But she agreed to support him.
At campaign appearances, Sarvis often mentions his wife, an African American, to express why he supports same-sex marriage, comparing Virginia’s ban to the state’s former law against interracial unions.
Sarvis, who is half Asian, likes to tell audiences that his own marriage would have been illegal in Virginia nearly a half-century ago.
Sarvis based his candidacy on the prospect that his long-shot status could improve because early polls suggested that many Virginians were unhappy with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.
His forecast proved accurate. In The Post’s most recent poll, Sarvis got 10 percent of likely voters, largely echoing an NBC News-Marist poll in which he got eight percent. In central and western parts of the state, The Post’s survey showed Sarvis’s popularity approaching 20 percent.
“This is probably the most shocking part of the campaign right now,” said Robert Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst. “More than anything, there’s frustration with both candidates and the entirely negative nature of the campaign.”
While political analysts expect Sarvis’s support to slip by Election Day, they say that he appears to be taking more votes from Cuccinelli.
“Terry McAuliffe is benefiting greatly from the Republicans’ choice, and, increasingly, it looks like Sarvis is benefiting as well,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Sarvis rejected the suggestion that he could end up helping McAuliffe become governor.
“Everyone wants a scapegoat,” he said. “What they should do is look in the mirror and realize what an atrocious candidate they ran — and I’m speaking of both parties.”
Asked if there was any chance he would withdraw to support one of his opponents, he said: “I can’t see it happening because of who they are and what they stand for. I’m going through to the end.”
Sarvis dismissed McAuliffe as “an amorphous blob of nothingness” who “doesn’t stand for anything except that winners and losers in the economy should be decided based on who has political access.”
Sarvis derided Cuccinelli as someone who “clothes himself in the rhetoric of liberty and cheapens it. On personal issues, he’s trying to foist aggressive ideology on us.”
On how Cuccinelli “talks about gay people,” Sarvis commented, “I think it’s loathsome.”
Josh Schwerin, a McAuliffe spokesman, did not respond to the substance of Sarvis’s characterization, instead writing in an e-mail that the Democrat is drawing Republican support by focusing on “strengthening and diversifying the economy.”
Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s chief strategist, said the Republican is “not going to apologize for being a pro-traditional family and pro-life candidate. That’s who he is, and he has been consistent.”
As for whether the Libertarian’s candidacy is a problem for Cuccinelli, LaCivita said that a vote for Sarvis is “a vote for Terry McAuliffe.”
“Voting for Sarvis is essentially throwing your vote away,” LaCivita said.
Third-party candidates have occasionally emerged as factors in Virginia elections, the best example being Marshall Coleman, who got 11 percent as an independent in the 1994 Senate race narrowly won by Democrat Charles Robb. But Coleman already was well known to voters, having served as the state’s Republican attorney general.
William Redpath, the last Libertarian Party candidate to run for governor, received less than 1 percent in the 2001 race won by Mark R.Warner (D).
If Sarvis is not expecting to win, he wants to muster enough support to bolster the Libertarian Party’s reputation in Virginia. He also wants a seat at the third and final debate, to be held Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech.
The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce shut him out of the last one, but Sarvis showed up anyway, clipping to his suit jacket a name tag that read “Candidate for Governor.”
Sitting toward the rear of the auditorium, he tapped out messages to what was then his more than 1,300 Twitter followers.
“Audience, needs a shower after that mudslinging,” Sarvis wrote close to the end before he filed out, another face in the departing crowd.