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Why Robert Sarvis is no Virginia Senate race spoiler for Ed Gillespie

Robert Sarvis (L) is back. His goal: Become the next senator from Virginia.

While Libertarian Party candidates in competitive races have been known to give Republicans heartburn, Sarvis shouldn't cause Republican Ed Gillespie much anxiety, at least at this point. Any fears the the 2013 gubernatorial contender could spoil Gillespie's chances are fears about something that simply isn't likely to happen.

Two reasons: The race doesn't look very close right now, and Sarvis wasn't a spoiler in his last run.

For starters, look at how the governor's race turned out.

While some Republicans groused that Sarvis's presence on the ballot hurt Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in what ended up being a close race, the reality is it didn't. Sarvis won 6.5 percent of the vote, which, yes, was more than now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe's margin over Cuccinelli. But exit poll data show that without Sarvis in the picture, McAuliffe still would have won the race, by nearly the same margin. Most Sarvis voters would have stayed home if he was not on the ballot. This chart tells the story:

Generally speaking, Libertarian Party candidates hold positions more closely aligned with Republicans than Democrats. And so, the thinking goes, they compete for more voters with the GOP.

That's why many Republicans often cringe at the thought of a Libertarian candidate with even a modest following entering the picture in a tight race. It's also why activists and operatives will sometimes try to exploit such a dynamic to their advantage. To wit: The 2012 Montana Senate race, where an outside group helped build support for a Libertarian Party candidate and what many saw as an attempt to boost the Democrat by peeling votes away from the Republican.

But polls leading up to Election Day in 2013 showed Sarvis wasn't tipping the scales toward either candidate. In short, he wasn't the spoiler some made him out to be.

As we have written, Gillespie is a sizable underdog to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) this year. Despite his access to national donors, he faces an uphill climb because he's up against the most popular politician in Virginia.

If this race is close come Nov. 1, it will almost certainly either mean that 1) Warner stumbled, big-time, 2) The national environment for Democrats is awful, or 3) Both. At the same time, Gillespie will have to run a smooth campaign to stay in the mix, which is no guarantee for the first-time candidate.

In short, this doesn't look like a super-competitive race right now, which means that Sarvis fits into the horse race picture as something of an afterthought.

Even if it tightens to the point that it begins to resemble the 2013 governor's race, remember that Sarvis simply didn't spoil the campaign last year.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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