What did Virginia tell the Republicans?

The most important factor in the Virginia governor's race may not have been the Republican or the Democrat, but the Libertarian candidate. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, November 8, 2013 — Now that the dust is settling from the dramatic Virginia governor’s race, it is time to begin assessing what it means to the beleaguered Republican Party. The most important name to remember from the election may be neither Ken Cuccinelli nor Terry McAuliffe, but rather the mysterious outrider, Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis. 

Sarvis may be the new face of American politics. He is young (37), well educated, half Chinese, married to an African American pediatrician, a lawyer and information technology expert, entrepreneur and, most importantly, passionate and absolutely fearless. It takes a special kind of nerve to take on both political parties in a statewide election without any visible infrastructure or popular recognition, let alone support.


The result is also interesting. Sarvis took 6.6 percent of the Virginia vote — 147,000 of the 2,223,989 votes cast. Most observers expected Sarvis’ vote to be taken from Cuccinelli’s column, but according to Time magazine online, exit polls showed Sarvis voters were leaning 2-1 toward McAuliffe. Is this important or just another ill-fated third party campaign?

A ground breaking American Values Survey of libertarians by the Public Religion Research Institute, In Search of Libertarians in America, 2013, suggests that it is important. Respondents who showed preferences for low government intervention in all areas were classified as libertarians. Those who showed preference for higher government intervention, even at the cost of some personal liberties, were classified as “communalists.” Most of the “communalist” views represent positions commonly held by both parties since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s and 40’s. If nothing else, this study underlines the fact that libertarians are coming at the whole public policy equation from an entirely different point of view. 

On the American Values Survey scale, consistent libertarians were 7 percent of the sample; those leaning toward libertarians were 15 percent of the sample. The corresponding communalist numbers were 7 percent and 17 percent respectively. Fifty-four percent of voters were “mixed,” holding some positions drawn from each of the extremes.

The demographic findings may be the most significant of the entire study. Non-Hispanic whites are 94 percent of libertarians, 68 percent are men, and 62 percent are under the age of 50. The political breakdown shows a potential advantage to the Republicans, if they can capitalize on it. Forty-five percent of libertarians classify themselves as Republican; 35 percent are independents, 15 percent third party, and only 5 percent Democrats.

SEE RELATED: Republican establishment sabotages Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia

The Reagan coalition of fiscal conservatives, the religious right and middle-class union members has been fading through the last decade and is now giving way to a new coalition. The unions have reclaimed many of their members, but the populist libertarians, and the Tea Party have appeared on the scene with their own constituencies. The American Values Study makes very clear that the two movements are not at all the same.

The Tea Party population tends to be older, religiously oriented, socially conservative, and very loosely organized. The libertarians are younger, socially liberal and quite notably inclined to think in terms of a third party. The major area of agreement is that both are fiscally conservative, in favor of smaller government.

The challenge of the Republican Party is to construct a tent big enough to house both these movements in addition to the establishment wing of the party. This is a major challenge, and the stakes are very high. If the party cannot meet the challenge, people who are young today will someday reenact the story of the Abolitionists taking over the Whig party and calling themselves Republicans. That development led directly to the Civil War.

But how to accomplish this integration? There are several considerations. Contrasting the caricature of Cuccinelli’s “extremism” to Chris Christy’s “moderate” persona, then drawing the conclusion that moderate politicians will be the winners every time is a misreading of the facts. But it is loved by all the mainstream commentators because it favors the establishment to which they belong.

SEE RELATED: GOP civil war: The Battle of Virginia

The real lesson of Virginia is that money talks.

Most Virginians knew very little abut Ken Cuccinelli before last summer. The McAuliffe campaign defined him in the popular mind by running televisi0n ads all summer with a mostly false narrative depicting Cuccinelli as making war on women before Cuccinelli had enough money to fight back. Then the government shutdown came along and should have finished him off — and would have had the Obamacare debacle not started to unfold in living color. Even after all that, he still almost won, and in another two weeks he probably would have.

But Robert Sarvis offers Republicans a far more challenging task: how to retain and support the libertarian upstarts and still keep the loyalty of the party elders, the donors, and the religious right.

The George W. Bush Republicans believe with him that “anyone who is not for us is against us.” This position is usually accompanied by the now traditional mantra of U.S. foreign policy that it is America’s mission to right all the wrongs of the world. These folks have a hard time joining hands with libertarians who believe that America should let other people solve their own problems, and that Americans should stay home unless directly challenged. The practical impact of this philosophy on defense appropriations is also hard for traditional Republicans to swallow.

Likewise, the libertarian approach to personal liberty and resistance to government intrusions into the privacy of citizen communications and bedrooms is hard for social conservatives to agree with. Laws on abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, gun control, legalization of drugs, prayer in public schools and gatherings, and many other causes are seen by libertarians as intrusions on personal liberty. That stance is an affront to the religious right. From the other side of the table, these younger people look at the traditionalists and see obstructionists and rusty old ideas and people.

How can these people all live under the same roof?

Maybe they can’t. Maybe this new wind will blow the party apart and cede the field to Democrats for the next generation. But maybe the traditionalists will start looking at the inroads the libertarians are making into the independents and younger Democrats, and realize that the party needs these constituencies if it is going to win national elections and remain a viable force in American politics. And maybe the Robert Sarvises of this new world will realize that the old fogies love their country as much as they do, and that there are many issues on which agreements can be reached which are acceptable to both groups.

Very few people have a “pure” dogmatic view of all the issues, as even the American Values Study found. Most Americans hold views on the issues which are not altogether logically consistent, and this fact allows for occasional commonality of purpose even between rivals.

To date there is no philosopher to do for this new movement what George Gilder did for Reagan conservatism; no one to provide a rational, coherent and comprehensive theoretical basis for thinking about the issues which confront the country and its people. It is very likely that such an intellectual framework will arise as this populist movement begins to fire the imaginations of the new generation. Ironically, the most comprehensive and intellectually consistent proponent of this youthful, new political movement is a 78 year old man named Ron Paul, whose appeal to young people is by now legendary.

In the meantime, it is in everyone’s interest to seek common ground where possible and to respectfully agree to disagree where necessary for the good of the party and the good of the country. The American people deserve everyone’s best efforts. 

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Lawrence J. Fedewa

Lawrence J. Fedewa is author, publisher, and speaker, he has addressed international audiences on both technical issues and events of the day. He is also a Contributing Editor for “A Line of Sight" magazine.

Lawrence J. Fedewa has worked with railroads, less-developed countries, and labor unions as a management consultant, and with professors, managers, politicians, and teachers. 

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