The Virginia governor's race has often been looked to as an off-year barometer of national political sentiment.
This year's grind-it-out race, an acrimonious spitball contest between two candidates only slightly more likeable than Walter White, is anything but.
In a lesser-of-two-evils campaign, Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Democratic fundraiser and confidante to former President Bill Clinton, is clinging to a modest but sturdy lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general.
Republicans have pilloried McAuliffe as a sleazy political operator and failed businessman who exploited his Washington connections to help his sputtering car company, GreenTech Automotive. Cuccinelli has been targeted as a far-right social crusader who would curb abortion rights and access to contraception. Democrats on Twitter are fond of calling him #creepyken.
McAuliffe is leading Cuccinelli among likely voters by an eight-point margin, 47% to 39%, according to a Washington Post poll out this week.
McAuliffe is hardly bulletproof: A federal investigation into GreenTech has sullied his reputation, and only two-thirds of Democrats -- his own party -- consider him "honest and trustworthy."
But Cuccinelli is on much shakier ground. While Republicans are slightly more fired up about voting for him than Democrats are for McAuliffe, Cuccinelli's favorable ratings are next-to-toxic: More than half of likely voters view him unfavorably.
Enter Robert Sarvis.
As public dismay with the two main candidates calcifies, the baby-faced 37-year old Libertarian candidate from Fairfax has quietly crept northward in the polls, reaching 10% in the Post poll.
That's not nearly enough to win in November -- with just five weeks until Election Day, even Sarvis admits "we have to get a lot higher" -- but he looks increasingly likely to play the role of spoiler by siphoning conservative votes away from Cuccinelli.
Sarvis chafes at the label.
"I don't even know what it means to be a spoiler," he said in an interview. "The system is rotten to the core from Republican and Democratic malfeasance. They have already spoiled the system. I don't even know what it means to be a spoiler. If I am the only one arguing for freedom and the rule of law, then those two are the spoilers as far as I'm concerned."
Positioning himself as a moderate
The Harvard and NYU-educated attorney and software programmer -- he was part of a team that won Google's Android Developer Prize for creating a "mobile app for true nightlifers" -- is positioning himself as the moderate choice between two "extreme" candidates.
In his telling, McAuliffe "stands for an extreme version of crony capitalism." Cuccinelli is "very regressive on social issues" and "unreliable" on economic matters.
Both parties, he said, are in league with the banks and "rich folks" -- a frustration that first motivated him to run for office in 2011, when he mounted an unsuccessful Republican bid to unseat longtime Democratic state Senate leader Dick Saslaw.
Though he said he left the GOP after that race, he voted in Virginia's Republican presidential primary in 2012, casting a ballot for Ron Paul. That November, he voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee.
Sarvis supports same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and says climate change is real. He opposes gun restrictions, higher taxes, the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and last year's landmark transportation bill in Richmond that raised some taxes to help fix northern Virginia's clogged roadways. Sarvis said he would pay for transportation funding, in part, by cutting from the education budget and finding ways to "prioritize spending."
Sarvis might deny being a spoiler, but Cuccinelli's campaign conceded Thursday that the Libertarian is draining support from the Republican nominee.
"There's no question that a vote for Robert Sarvis is vote for Terry McAuliffe and a vote against liberty," said Richard Cullen, Cuccinelli's communications director.
"It's important to remember that there's no greater defender of first principles and liberty in Virginia than Ken Cuccinelli," Cullen said, outlining why Libertarian-leaning Republicans should stay in the party fold.
"Ken was the first attorney general in the nation to sue to stop Obamacare and he led an eight year battle to secure Virginians' private property rights in the state constitution. He's also the only candidate in this race who's laid out a clear, substantive plan to free up the private sector and create 58,000 jobs."
Challenges for third-party candidates
Few political observers in Virginia expect Sarvis, who has little money in the bank and almost no political machinery behind him, to reach the 10% threshold, or even the 8% mark he hit in another recent poll from NBC News and Marist.
The last third-party candidate in Virginia to reach that level of support was Marshall Coleman, who snagged 11% of the vote in the madcap three-way 1994 Senate race.