GOP Primary Virginia

At the time a Republican gubernatorial candidate, Denver Riggleman listens to a question during a news conference at the State Capitol in Richmond in 2017. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, he lost a GOP convention on June 13 that would have positioned him for a re-election campaign.

Virginia Republicans are adamant about keeping up Confederate statues, but they don't hesitate pulling down rebel symbols of their own.

Just ask the latest toppled by the grassroots: Denver Riggleman.

The freshman congressman with libertarian leanings from the sprawling 5th District — it stretches from the outermost Washington suburbs to the North Carolina border — was denied renomination earlier this month, replaced with a self-described "bright-red biblical and constitutional conservative," Bob Good.

That the gay-friendly Riggleman was defeated ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision ensuring anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers is seen by the outside world as the latest evidence the Republican Party defiantly is out of touch and believes it must stay that way to remain in power.

That's been known inside Virginia for nearly a decade by almost everyone but Republicans, who, with each loss, seem to hold tighter the conservative base that drags them to defeat.

That said, the heavily rural, Donald Trump-carried 5th District likely is a Republican hold, though Democrats are telling themselves — and donors — that this fresh burst of GOP fratricide potentially shortens the odds of a pickup.

Democrats shouldn't bet on it.

They could have a better chance in the 5th in 2022, after its boundaries are redrawn, perhaps eliminating the over-exaggerated partisan tilt of congressional and legislative seats that has been the rule for redistricting here by Democrats and Republicans since the 1990s.

Yes, that's all about process, of which Riggleman — endorsements by Trump and Good's former boss, Jerry Falwell Jr., notwithstanding — is a casualty.

Riggleman fell, not to rigged lines but to a rigged nominating system, one that gives outsize influence to a handful of insiders who do not represent the 5th District as a whole. They're to the right of a reliably right-leaning district, maximizing their influence by using the rules to minimize that of everyone else.

The 5th has a population of about 735,000, of whom 310,000 voted in the 2018 congressional election, when Riggleman defeated Leslie Cockburn by nearly 7 percentage points. The Republican nomination in 2020 was decided by a little more than 2,400 voters at a drive-through convention staged because of the coronavirus.

Among Republicans, fewer is better — an attitude made more urgent by the party's shrinking base of graying, white rural voters. They'll still have a say, Republicans figure, if the Democrats' expanding base doesn't.

Ergo, Republican reliance on gerrymandering and obstacles to voting, such as a junked-by-Democrats photo ID requirement, that target the blue-leaning young and minorities. Vote-by-mail, the practice in 21 states, likely is coming to Virginia, further expanding participation — long a four-letter word in the GOP.

Paradoxically, if not ironically, this is the legacy of a Virginia Republican Party that was ascendant in the 1970s under Dick Obenshain and the 1990s under George Allen, long a resident of Albemarle County, because it selected its nominees through members-only conventions rather than open-to-all primaries.

But as mainstream conservatives died off or gave up — largely in frustration over the increasing muscle of movement conservatives whom conventions initially were designed to freeze out — the party's governance and nominations became the purview of anti-tax, pro-gun, abortion-hostile absolutists.

Riggleman has had his hands full with this ilk since 2018, when he was nominated by a single vote in the 5th District GOP committee after four rounds of balloting. The committee selected the candidate because of the surprise resignation of Tom Garrett, a freshman who quit because of alcoholism.

A Nelson County distiller who briefly ran for governor in 2017 — and might have done so in 2021 had he survived in 2020 — Riggleman was shocked to be the 2018 nominee, defeating Cynthia Dunbar, a hard-right education reformer who beat an Obenshain for national committeewoman in 2016 and had been shopping around for a congressional seat.

As Riggleman said at the time, "Was I worried? No. Did I think I was going to win? No."

Over the next two years, Riggleman — the first of 73 Trump-backed nomination candidates to be defeated this year — was a largely reliable presidential ally in the House of Representatives. But in the microverse that decided the 5th District nomination, that wasn't enough.

Riggleman raised the ire of conservatives by favoring a fix to Obamacare after Republican efforts at repeal failed. He really had them seeing red — sorry! — by officiating last year at the wedding of two gay campaign volunteers. It was a gesture that endeared him to some in the district's Democratic pockets of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

But now Riggleman joins Eric Cantor, a would-be House speaker, and several state legislators tossed over by Republicans as rebels to a cause that, in Virginia, is a recipe for further defeats.

Jeff E. Schapiro is a writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared. Contact him at (804) 649-6814. 

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