While Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe wrestle with their own controversies, Libertarian nominee Robert C. Sarvis has cast himself as a viable alternative for voters frustrated with the two major party candidates for governor.
Sarvis, 36, who is campaigning full time, is a former software engineer, teacher, lawyer and new media entrepreneur from Northern Virginia. He is the first gubernatorial candidate for the Libertarian Party of Virginia since 2001, when William Redpath received just 14,500 votes, or 0.8 percent of the electorate.
"I'm trying to carve out my own message that is really attractive in an election where people don't like the extremism of the Democrats and Republicans," Sarvis said. "There are a lot of voters out there -- 40 percent -- that are saying they want a different candidate than the other two," he said.
Independent or third-party candidates traditionally stand little chance of winning statewide elections in Virginia. But Sarvis hopes this year is different.
Democrats are hammering Cuccinelli for accepting $18,000 in gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, the figure at the center of the scandal that is engulfing the last year of Gov. Bob McDonnell's term, as well as the attorney general's stances on social issues.
Republicans are pummeling McAuliffe, founder of GreenTech Automotive. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating how the Mississippi electric car company used an immigrant visa program in seeking investors.
"It's indisputable that this is a year when many thousands want an alternative to the two major-party candidates," said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Any analyst hears this constantly from Virginia voters who are dissatisfied with the choices."
Few third-party candidates for statewide office in Virginia exceed a couple of percentage points. The rare exceptions in recent years featured candidates who were household names before they switched and ran as independents.
U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who initially served as a Democrat, left the party and was re-elected as an independent in 1970 and in 1976.
Henry Howell unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1969 before he was elected lieutenant governor as an independent in a special election in 1971. In 1973 Howell ran for governor as an independent and received 49 percent of the vote, nearly defeating Republican Mills Godwin.
J. Marshall Coleman, running as an independent, got 11 percent in the 1994 U.S. Senate election because Charles S. Robb, the Democrat, and Oliver L. North, the Republican, were so controversial, Sabato said.
Coleman also was a known quantity -- a former attorney general and two-time Republican nominee for governor who nearly beat Democrat L. Douglas Wilder in 1989. Coleman also had the backing of Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va.
Sarvis is a former Republican who first threw his hat into the political arena two years ago, as the GOP candidate against Richard L. Saslaw, Democratic leader in the Virginia Senate. Sarvis lost with 37 percent of the vote.
The Fairfax County native has since turned his back on the GOP and joined the Libertarian Party.
"I realized that the Republican Party, at least in Virginia, in the current era, is not a good vehicle for liberty candidates," Sarvis said. "Republicans are very strident on personal issues. When they talk about liberty, they don't mean any personal issues, there is very little respect for personal autonomy," he said.
"And on economic issues, it's almost like they don't believe in what they talk about. They talk about limited government, but they are just as bad as the other party at cronyism, raising taxes and growing government," Sarvis said.
Sarvis was exposed to politics at an early age. His mother, who is Chinese, was an English teacher and real estate agent turned stay-at-home mom to raise her kids. His father was an engineer.
"We were a fairly politically knowledgeable family, but we were not active campaigners. We all knew who our representatives and senators were," Sarvis said. "We leaned toward Republican, but we weren't invested in any of the social issues, which weren't really as big as they are now. We mostly cared about economic issues."
In college Sarvis first flirted with libertarianism. "I realized that the freedom of being on your own is also a responsibility; the two go hand in hand," he said. "And you can't really understand how the world works without an understanding of economics. You see how a lot of government action has unintended consequences and makes a lot of social ills worse."
Sarvis earned degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. He also has a law degree from New York University, and a master's in economics from George Mason University.
In the following years, he briefly ran a small business in San Francisco developing mobile applications, worked as a lawyer, software engineer and math teacher.
"He's one of the smartest guys I've ever known, he's certainly very talented," said Michael Park, a New York attorney and close friend who has known Sarvis since elementary school.
"I'm more a traditional conservative and back in school, we tended to be more on the same page politically. I guess with his Senate run he was testing out waters, but I didn't know he'd aim this high," Park said.
Sarvis said that it wasn't until late March that he decided to run for Virginia's highest office as a Libertarian.
"I saw the way the race was shaping up between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe and how that was just a very bad choice for Virginia voters. In the back of my mind, I thought it would be really nice to have another candidate," he said.
Sarvis secured his party's nomination April 21 at a state convention in Waynesboro.
"Like many voters, we didn't like either of the mainstream candidates," said Chuck Moulton, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia. "So we saw the opportunity to give voters a different choice."
Moulton said that his party did not run a candidate in 2005 and 2009 because of the "very complex and expensive" ballot access requirements for third parties.
Sarvis impressed the party leadership because of his background as a lawyer and entrepreneur, Moulton said. "For Libertarians, economics is a big part of our governing philosophy," he said.
In two months of campaigning, Sarvis has focused consistently on reducing government, with proposals to end the income tax, implement school choice, legalize marijuana, reform asset forfeiture laws and fight for marriage equality.
His marriage to his wife, Astrid -- who is black and with whom he has two small children -- has helped him sympathize with the gay community's struggle for marriage equality, Sarvis said.
"It personalizes the issue to think that my marriage was once illegal in this state," Sarvis said, referring to Virginia law before the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which made it legal for couples of different races to marry.
Sarvis' wife is a pediatrician from Mississippi.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in the commonwealth, and in 2006, voters backed an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
"I have a lot of gay friends, some of them were married in other states, and some of them have children together. Why wouldn't you make marriage stronger by including more people who are a credit to the institution?" he said.
His vow to end Virginia's constitutional ban of gay marriage is just one message that Sarvis takes with him as he travels through the commonwealth.
"When I talk to people, and I tell them I'm running for governor and they ask if I'm a Republican or Democrat, and I tell them neither. As soon as I say that, their eyes light up," he said of his travels.
A July poll by left-leaning Public Policy Polling had Sarvis at 7 percent, trailing Cuccinelli (37 percent) and McAuliffe (41 percent.)
Sabato believes that this won't change much in the coming months.
"On the whole, I'll bet on single digits for Sarvis," he said. "If he's lucky and the other candidates go nuclear or self-destruct, maybe he'll get 5 to 9 percent. As Election Day approaches in an off-off year contest, the electorate often narrows down to hard partisans, so it's just the Democratic base versus the Republican base."
People don't want to "throw their vote away" by voting for a third party that is unlikely to win, Sabato said.
Former Republican state Sen. Russ Potts of Winchester ran for governor as an independent in 2005 and got 2 percent of the vote. He remembers his run as a great experience that he doesn't regret.
"As a matter of fact, I cherish the memories. (But) it is very difficult to run as an independent. First, to raise money, and secondly, because as an organization of volunteers and without the party machinery, which translates into a successful campaign," Potts said.
Cuccinelli has raised nearly $7 million; McAuliffe more than $12 million. Sarvis has raised $39,000, all from private donors, since his campaign launch.
"We have been able to raise what we have needed so far," Sarvis said. "It's very organic and it kind of builds on itself. I think we are gaining a lot of momentum."
Moulton has few illusions.
"If we don't win this year, it's not the end of the world, even though we are fairly confident that Robert will do much better than the 2001 candidate," he said. "It's about having a more visible presence and moving the football down the field."
Sarvis said that a defeat on Nov. 5 wouldn't end his political ambitions.
"My main goal is to continue serving the people of Virginia, regardless of the outcome," he said. "I've always been interested in making sure that we have good public policy and I am focusing on issues that Virginians want to see changes in. That's where my passion is."
Twitter: @MSchmidtRTD ___