Virginia Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe on election night 2013
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(The Root)—Thank providence for Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate for governor of Virginia. Because of him, I don’t have to sell my house in Richmond and move out of the state.

Even though there is little hard evidence to support it, I can’t shake the feeling that if Sarvis had not been on the ballot, Democratic businessman Terry McAuliffe would have lost Tuesday’s election to Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite.

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And there is no way I could have continued to live in a state governed by a fanatic like Cuccinelli, whose positions on abortion, gay rights and other social issues are so stridently retrograde that even the ultraconservative Richmond Times-Dispatch couldn’t bring itself to endorse him.  

I can't prove it, but I suspect that the bulk of the 145,160 votes that Sarvis won would have gone to Cuccinelli if Sarvis had not been in the running. Added to the 1,010,335 votes Cuccinelli racked up, that would have been enough to put him ahead of McAuliffe’s tally of 1,065, 205—and I’d have been packing my bags and putting “For Sale” signs in the yard.

But even though I’ve been spared the headache of becoming a political refugee, I’m not jumping with joy over McAuliffe’s unexpectedly narrow victory. The race that finally came to a merciful end on Tuesday was one of the nastiest, most divisive, most dispiriting campaigns I’ve witnessed in more than four decades of covering politics.

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The victor, McAuliffe, is a backslapping political fundraiser with the ethical sensitivity of a feral tom cat, an investor callous enough to have profited from a ghoulish though legal scheme to make money by taking out annuities on dying old people. He has never held elective office before and has provided little evidence that he knows what being governor really entails.

But he has the virtue of not being Cuccinelli. I voted for McAuliffe, holding my proverbial nose as I dispatched my electronic ballot. As was the case with many of my fellow Virginians, mine was a choice for the lesser evil—but it was still evil.

This was not the way it was supposed to be in Virginia, whose changing demographics allowed Barack Obama to carry the state twice after decades of unbroken Republican victories in presidential elections. This is a state in which both U.S. Senate seats are held by respected moderate Democrats, one of whom, Tim Kaine, served as chairman of Obama’s national Democratic Party. 

But the modernizing influences that have transformed the Old Dominion from a reliably red state into a swing state have run headlong into the reflexive anti-Obama backlash that has become the main driving force within the Republican Party nationwide.

Cuccinelli was able to come as close as he did by portraying the race as a referendum on Obamacare, focusing on that issue to the virtual exclusion of almost everything else during the dying days of the campaign. His diehard opposition to Obama’s signature legislative achievement allowed him to rally the predominantly white Republican base, 92 percent of whom wound up voting for him. That’s only 3 percentage points fewer than the incumbent Republican, Bob McDonnell, garnered four years ago.

Though most polls showed him losing by big margins, Cuccinelli was able to close much of the gap as the battle was ending—and might even have been able to overtake McAuliffe if the race had lasted a few more days. And he managed to do that even though McAuliffe outspent him by a nearly 2-1 ratio and Democrat celebrities, including both Bill and Hillary Clinton and Obama himself, made appearances on McAuliffe’s behalf. For his part, Cuccinelli paraded Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

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What I take away from all this is simple: Despite all the talk about how the Republican establishment is gearing up to retake control of its party from the lunatic fringe, the Tea Party is far from being defeated. If my hunch that Cuccinelli would have prevailed if Sarvis hadn’t drained away some of his support is right, Tea Party proponents will see little reason to back away from their extremist positions. In fact, they might become even more entrenched in them. And that means our politics are bound to become even uglier, more divisive and less productive. I may sell the house yet.

Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.