That was the sum takeaway of my two-and-a-half years as a newspaper editor in Virginia. In my time I have lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia and West Virginia. But there is nothing like Virginia.
Case in point: Saturday’s Republican “drive-thru” convention in Virginia’s 5th District.
The current office holder is the first-term businessman from Manassas, Denver Riggleman. Outsiders may not have heard of him unless reminded he made a brief national cameo that made its way all the way onto Saturday Night Live after an odd story surfaced about his authoring Bigfoot erotica. He insisted it was a long running jest.
Locals know him best as the owner of a local distillery.
Two years ago, when incumbent Tom Garrett stepped aside citing a need to treat his alcoholism, Riggleman won the nomination. That fall, while others rode the blue wave to Congress, Riggleman pulled off a surprise win over the better-known and well-funded journalist — and mother of the actress Olivia Wilde — Leslie Cockburn. This despite being on the same ticket as the controversial right-wing dead weight that was Corey Stewart.
If all of that sounds like some sort of soap opera, welcome to Virginia politics.
And now, as Paul Harvey might say… the rest of the story.
At the time of that election, I was the editor of a small newspaper in the 5th District and had an opportunity to meet with both candidates as part of an editorial board. While it was my policy at the time not to express opinions or endorsements on the candidates, I am under no obligation now. Cockburn struck me as well prepared and would have represented the district well.
Denver Riggleman? It seemed easy to write off his candidacy. He was drafted in to replace an incumbent, he was a political neophyte, and he was by nature of his party bound to that bombastic personality that was Stewart. Also, he was not the preferred choice of many of the well-heeled residents in our coverage area.
To boot, shortly before we met, the “Bigfoot” story had broken, making enough waves that the national press was reporting spikes in Bigfoot-related searches on Pornhub.com. If you can bring those statistics into local campaign coverage, that’s saying something. I’m not sure what, but definitely something.
Yet, Denver Riggleman did something that day. He impressed me. He acknowledged the controversy. He deftly fielded questions about Stewart and his rumored ties to the far-right fringes of the party. He spoke about freedom and liberty, personal choice, his 15 years in the military (both enlisted and commissioned) as an intelligence officer and his background in business. He was an open-minded breath of fresh air that wasn’t confined by talking points. We used to celebrate that.
As a freshman, Riggleman joined the House Freedom Caucus and his voting record found him in line with President Trump 94.5 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight. Still, there was that independent streak, one he would not apologize for, and that did not sit well with the faithful.
Then, Denver Riggleman committed a cardinal sin: He officiated the same-sex wedding of two former campaign volunteers last summer. Some members of the 5th District Republican committee tried to censure him for not passing their litmus tests on that and several other issues. Two county GOP committees did censure him, and one passed a motion of no confidence. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. Constitution be damned.
He was then challenged for his seat by the far more conservative Bob Good, a former Campbell County supervisor and former employee of Liberty University’s athletics department who calls himself a “bright red Biblical and constitutional conservative,” according to the Roanoke Times.
All of which is well and good, that’s how the system should work. If the party wants to replace its candidate, that’s an internal matter. This why I feel nominating processes should be on the company’s dime, not mine.
Yet, something doesn’t sit right about the way Riggleman’s exit was engineered by his party.
Riggleman had pushed for a primary to nominate the candidate, where, conducted like primaries you are likely familiar with, a wide range of voters would be heard. The district has a history of using a convention process. Using the pandemic as the backdrop, however, the party opted for a “drive-thru” convention as opposed to an indoor convention.
The 5th District that stretches from northern Virginia to the North Carolina border. Held in Lynchburg, voters were expected to travel hours and miles to cast their vote from their cars in a church parking lot. That’s almost three hours from Manassas, while only an hour from Danville near the border. You couldn’t say it was a central location. The kicker? Mr. Good’s home base is right next door.
According to reports, some waited in line for hours. Others went home without voting. Some were told to get in one line, then subsequently sent to the back of another. And so, with a wink and a nod, Denver Riggleman was ousted Wendy’s-style. Endorsements from Trump and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. — as well as plenty of cash — notwithstanding. The incumbent managed the backing of just 42 percent of the some 2,500 party activists. Riggleman claims voting irregularities. The party says everything was on the up and up, but make no mistake, it shut out a large group of its voters to jettisoned him.
So much for coat tails, seems the president has none. The conservative Christian wing can be relied on to vote for a man who may not embody its values but will vote to its advantage for president. It will not make that same allowance in Congress.
And that’s how a district that was “likely Republican” moves to “lean Republican” in the Cook Political Report’s “Crystal Ball.” It’s a rural district and will be a tall order for whomever the Democrats nominate in its June 23 primary. But the Dems hold one more ace.
Mr. Good failed to file his candidate qualification paperwork to the Virginia Department of Elections by the June 9 deadline. They are confident they will be given an extension. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Just ask Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who made that same mistake last year and had to run as a write-in candidate. The party was so gung-ho to line things up right for its preferred candidate, you think that was one mistake it would be determined not to repeat.
Meanwhile, we have the answer to the question of whether libertarianism has any place in today’s Republican party. It does not. In Ronald Reagan’s day, the Republican Party was all about a “big tent.” Calling today’s Virginia GOP a pup tent would be generous by comparison. If you don’t pass the cultural conservative litmus test, hasta la vista, baby.
Mr. Good brags they will make the 5th “bright red again.” He may have just increased the chances it will turn blue.
Virginia politics is a funny business, indeed.