A few weeks back, I noted that libertarians were turning to Robert Sarvis over Ken Cuccinelli due to a combination of historical resentment from the Bush era, and hard political calculation that their time has come, if only social conservatives will get out of the way.

Yet if that was the message that the Sarvis vote meant to send, it seems to have been severely scrambled by a simple mathematical reality: There is simply no way Robert Sarvis could have cost Ken Cuccinelli the election as governor of Virginia. Indeed, Sarvis took more votes from Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, and may have helped put the Republican candidate for attorney general over the top (in the event that he wins). In other words, if libertarians did go into the polling booth intending to make their disgust with Republican stances on social issues clear, it didn’t show up in the polls, and thus, for all intents and purposes, didn’t happen.

Not that that’s stopped some people from blaming them anyway, or complaining about libertarians as if they were responsible. Fortunately, some of Virginia’s conservative commentariat has picked up on what a mistake this is. One can understand this on one level – after all, Sarvis’ sins in the eyes of Cuccinelli supporters are not truly mathematical. They are cultural. That is, the Harvard-educated, market-oriented environmentalist software developer Sarvis embodies a breed of voter whose importance to the Republican Party’s future viability is as intense as the loathing which much of the Republican Party’s current base feels for it. Yet when the fire of cultural resentment meets the deluge of electoral math, it becomes clear that no amount of libertarian blaming will obscure the simple fact that Sarvis’ candidacy may have inadvertently done as much to show Republicans their route to growing the party as Chris Christie’s blowout candidacy.

Confused? I’ll explain. Let’s start with a simple fact that no one seems to have noted yet: That if Sarvis was meant as a spoiler candidate for Cuccinelli by his donors, as some evidence suggests he might have been, then those donors didn’t get their money’s worth. At all. In fact, they should have seen that coming. Despite the pre-election media spin that Sarvis was a spoiler for Cuccinelli, polling data such as Quinnipiac’s close to the eve of the election clearly show McAuliffe gaining more support in a Sarvis-deprived world than Cuccinelli. So at the very least, Sarvis’ more liberal and deep-pocketed backers (such as Obama bundler Joe Liemandt) spent their money poorly.

Bear in mind that Liemandt gave his money to a group called “Libertarian Booster PAC,” rather than to Sarvis directly, and also gave that money in January, well before Sarvis was even a factor in the Virginia race. Given also that Sarvis’ voters were disproportionately McAuliffe voters, I want to suggest an alternate idea: That just as the GOP is hemorrhaging voters and money over its social message, Virginia may be the first sign that Democrats are hemorrhaging voters and money over its economic message (which, charitably speaking, is only slightly to the right of Elizabeth Warren). Granted, McAuliffe wasn’t an exponent of that brand of Democratic politics. But to those looking for a third option to rear its head nationally, Sarvis’ candidacy probably looked like a good test balloon. And, indeed, it has been. Sarvis earned a record number of votes for a libertarian.

That’s a good thing. By drawing disproportionately from McAuliffe’s voters while earning a margin big enough to decide an election, Sarvis handed the GOP a massive key to future victory. For all intents and purposes, his campaign may as well have been a giant neon sign reading “HERE BE DEMOCRATIC CROSSOVER VOTERS.” Even if his donor didn’t intend that, the 6.6 percent of the electorate that Sarvis captured were clearly people with softer allegiances to their political party, and given their distribution, that’s a fact that should worry Democrats.

Not only that, but they were precisely the people who should bolster a libertarian case for being the future of the GOP. To quote the Daily Beast, “the average Sarvis voter was a younger, well-educated, pro-choice white who did not identify with either political party.” Readers should pay special attention to the “younger” part.

What is more, given that the Daily Beast also notes that Sarvis performed well in suburban areas, with moderate voters, it is clear that libertarianism can be a winning message in the areas of America that Mitt Romney tried so desperately (and unsuccessfully) to win in 2012. Combine this with Christie’s win in New Jersey, and you arrive at the counterintuitive idea that a libertarian-moderate fusion, rather than a libertarian-conservative fusion, may be the key to a GOP coalition of the future.  At the very least, if libertarians needed proof that their ideology is one that will attract the next generation of GOP voters, Sarvis basically handed it to them.

Can the GOP win over this crop of not-Republicans, not-yet-Democrats? Time will tell. However, it is worth noting the phenomenon even as other commentators continue to celebrate Chris Christie. Politicians like Rand Paul have already argued that bluer voting blocs may be susceptible to libertarian politics, just as Christie’s supporters have pointed to the New Jersey governor’s admirable numbers with minorities. The demographic profile of Sarvis’ supporters mandates that we wonder whether, in the choice between Christie’s strategy and Paul’s strategy, the answer might in fact be “all of the above.”

Featured Publications