Corrected 10:29 a.m. | Conservatives pushing for more control of the nominating process in a congressional district in Virginia insist it’s not just because freshman Republican Denver Riggleman officiated a gay wedding this summer.
But it’s hard to talk about the effort to replace Riggleman, a libertarian-leaning business owner, with a more socially conservative Republican without talking about the wedding. It is arguably the most prominent thing Riggleman has done in his 11 months in office.
Google Riggleman, and there’s the picture. It appeared in media accounts that noted it is still rare for a Republican to do such a thing. Riggleman’s wife, Christine, posted it on her Facebook page, a gesture that did not go unnoticed. There’s the congressman, squinting as he reads prepared remarks. There are the two grooms, former campaign volunteers, wearing matching windowpane plaid.
That sunny July day set off a chain of events that has now placed Riggleman at the center of a longstanding dispute among Virginia Republicans, who are reeling from a series of electoral losses.
The battle could cost Riggleman his job. He already faces one GOP opponent, Liberty University athletics director Robert Good, who says he was recruited by “a number” of people in “leadership positions” throughout the district. Democrats hope the turmoil gives them a better shot at winning the GOP-leaning seat, one of only four in the state still held by Republicans.
But observers across the state’s political spectrum say this goes deeper than one congressional seat. At the heart, they say, is a dispute about who controls the state’s GOP and whether the party needs to retrench with its socially conservative core or reach out to the state’s growing immigrant, nonwhite and young voting population.
“This is a high-noon situation in the Republican Party, where both sides walk out in the street and say, ‘Partner, this town isn’t big enough for the both of us,’” said Rollin Reisinger, a longtime consultant for Republican candidates in Virginia. “This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”
At its essence, Riggleman’s predicament is procedural: As news of the wedding spread, three GOP county committees voted to censure him. The 5th Congressional District Republican Committee narrowly missed voting to do the same. The censures cited Riggleman’s votes in favor of granting more visas for foreign workers and for sending military support to Saudi Arabia.
In November, the district committee voted to name the party’s 2020 nominee at a convention rather than a primary, a move widely seen as targeting Riggleman.
Under Virginia election law, parties are allowed to choose how they name their nominees. Conventions give more control to small groups of party stalwarts who take the trouble to register and show up at nominating conventions, stripping incumbents of much of the advantage of name recognition and fundraising they would enjoy in a primary.
A former Air Force officer and distillery owner, Riggleman has a fighter’s physique — rounded shoulders, barrel chest — softened by gleaming eyes that give the impression he’s on the verge of cracking a joke.
Until now, his biggest political battle involved dirty drawings of a well-endowed Sasquatch monster. The pictures, unearthed on Riggleman’s Instagram account by his 2018 Democratic opponent and passed off as proof he was into “Bigfoot erotica,” earned him a parody on “Saturday Night Live” and some embarrassing headlines.
Riggleman, who has said he is fascinated by “Bigfoot belief systems,” was able to brush the whole thing off as an inside joke with his old military buddies. He still won the election, even during a wave year for Democrats. The sprawling, rural 5th District stretches from the D.C. exurbs in Fauquier County to the North Carolina border and backed President Donald Trump by 12 points in 2016. The 2020 race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
On Capitol Hill, Riggleman is seen as amiable and uncontroversial.
He hands out shots of his house-made whiskey at GOP retreats, Republicans say. He was captured in a viral video doing a goofy, shuffling dance that was also somehow graceful, even as he pointed fingers and bit his lower lip.
Riggleman has taken issue with claims that he has not been sufficiently conservative, pointing out he has voted with the president 93 percent of the time.
“I came to Congress to do what is right for the 5th District and America, not to do what is politically advantageous or convenient,” he said in a statement. “This isn’t just about my race, but about the broader question of what we want to be as a party. We can either be an inward-looking minority or a big tent party that can regain power in Virginia.”
Good, Riggleman’s only GOP opponent so far, said he doesn’t plan to make the wedding an issue in his campaign, although he noted he is a born-again Christian with a “biblical view of marriage.” The issue, he said, is that Riggleman does not represent the “conservative values of this district.”
He criticized Riggleman for supporting several measures with bipartisan support. Those include legislation that would provide protections to financial institutions dealing with legal marijuana-related businesses and his co-sponsoring of a bill that would create an immigration visa system for less-skilled workers to do year-round, nonfarm work.
“Many Republicans feel there is no way we will win the election next November with Riggleman because there are too many conservatives he has alienated, betrayed and showed contempt for,” Good said.
Riggleman got involved in politics because he was upset about what he thought were the state’s burdensome liquor regulations.
He rode that record to a brief run for governor in 2017 on a populist platform he dubbed the “whiskey rebellion.”
After his predecessor, Republican Tom Garrett, retired after one term amid an ethics investigation, Riggleman won a rushed nomination process against ardent social conservative Cynthia Dunbar.
Riggleman has rolled out his conservative bona fides: posting endorsements on his Facebook page from evangelical kingmaker and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. (Good’s employer) and from Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who chairs the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.
It is unclear whether that’s the kind of support that will make a difference.
Much of the campaigning for a convention nomination takes place behind the scenes. To vote, delegates have to be approved by the county committee, then trek across a district larger than New Jersey for the convention.
Hints of tension between Riggleman and local leaders have surfaced. In late November, Riggleman campaign chairman Kurt Lofquist accused the district committee chairman, Melvin Adams, in a letter posted on Twitter of sharing private text messages with the rest of the committee to sow “dissention within the committee against” Riggleman. “Due to this violation of trust and integrity, the congressman will have no further communication with you,” the letter stated.
Adams, in an interview before the letter was released, said he likes Riggleman personally and does not have “an ax to grind with him.” He said it is not unusual for committees to hold nominating conventions and the format made sense this year because the committee’s rules require it to hold a convention to vote on other matters anyway. He added that the process would be “fair and transparent.”
Democrats, who are targeting the 5th District in 2020, see an opening.
“Republicans either don’t think he can win a primary or they’re looking to kick him out of office,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Meanwhile, Democrats are running on the issues Virginians actually care about, like protecting health care and lowering prescription drug costs.”
Six Democrats have launched campaigns in the district, and one of them, Roger Dean Huffstetler, who ran for the seat last cycle, ended the most recent fundraising quarter with $347,000 in the bank compared to Riggleman’s $211,000.
GOP pollster Glen Bolger, who did polling for former 5th District Rep. Robert Hurt, said turmoil within Republican ranks could pose a problem for the party.
“The whole idea that going into a presidential year it makes sense to basically replace the incumbent congressman in the nominating process, that’s a sure way to sow division and lose in the general,” he said. “Because it’s not a suburban district, it’s a little bit more likely that Republicans will hold on to it. But why introduce the element of chaos?”
An earlier version of this story misstated Riggleman’s military background. He was an Air Force officer.