RICHMOND — Denver Riggleman has done hard stuff before.
As an Air Force intelligence officer after 9/11, he planned bombing raids over Afghanistan. As a small-business man, he overcame maddening bureaucracy to build a distillery outside Charlottesville. As a land owner in the path of a proposed natural gas pipeline, he went toe-to-toe with an energy giant.
But running for governor of Virginia as a genuine outsider? Now that’s tough, as the Republican is finding out nine weeks into a populist bid that has generated enthusiastic support from some voters but not much cash.
“What I’ve learned, sadly, is money seems to be the most important part of a campaign,” he said in an interview Friday. “You can read about it, but until you experience it, you don’t understand the massive financial outlay that you’re responsible for personally. Now I see why it’s so difficult for people that aren’t entrenched in the political game to run for office.”
Riggleman is one of four candidates competing in the GOP’s June 13 gubernatorial primary. The others — former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) and Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors — have had long careers in or around government. And they have the war chests to show for it. Each raised between $450,000 and $2 million by the end of December, the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline.
Riggleman pulled in just $40,000 by then. He said he has since raised another $60,000. But with eight staffers and a payroll approaching $40,000 a month, plus the cost of gas, printing and other expenses, he is feeling the strain.
“I thought raising $100,000 would be awesome in the first 2½ months,” Riggleman said in an interview Friday. “But my gosh, it’s a pimple on a hog’s [backside]” … You figure out why people would rather play the game than come from the outside.”
With Donald Trump in the White House and populists agitating in both parties, Riggleman figured the time was right for an upstart bid. He has won fans with a humble-origins biography, a tale of regulatory woe related to the distillery and his David-and-Goliath account of fighting off Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed pipeline.
Trina Phillips of Yorktown, chairwoman of the 2,500-member Military Spouses for Trump Coalition, withdrew her endorsement of Gillespie last week and backed Riggleman after meeting the distillery owner.
“Denver, he’s more of a people person,” she said. “He’s more like us. He’s not a politician. He understands the needs of the military … I like that he wants to get in there to change the laws for the Virginia people. He’s not being paid by anybody … Ed and Frank and Corey, they’re all accepting all kinds of money.”
Riggleman has found a following among other Trump voters. Stewart, who drew national attention a decade ago for a crackdown on illegal immigrants in Prince William, was chairman of the president’s Virginia campaign for most of last year. He likes to say, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” But at times Stewart was too outspoken even for the Trump campaign, and he was eventually fired for protesting outside of RNC headquarters in Washington.
Among the Trump fans who have turned to Riggleman is Mark Lloyd, a Virginia tea party leader who was Trump’s Virginia campaign director. And Jim McKelvey, a Moneta developer who shrink-wrapped his own recreational vehicle for Trump last year and spent four months driving it across Virginia and North Carolina on his own dime to promote the Republican’s presidential campaign.
McKelvey said he was prepared to sit out the governor’s race.
“There was no one there who really excited me,” he said. “I listen to these people. It’s just the typical political spew.”
Then McKelvey heard Riggleman’s stump speech. Now he has offered to wrap his RV for Riggleman and lend it to his campaign.
Policy-wise, the candidate has much in common with the rest of the Republican field. He supports charter schools and vouchers. He opposes abortion in most cases. He’s big on gun rights, proposing that Virginians be allowed to carry concealed handguns without a permit. He talks a lot about liberty.
Riggleman takes some hard-right stances, such as calling for the state to pull funding from “sanctuary schools,” meaning those that protect illegal immigrants. But he also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, a position only Stewart shares on the GOP side. He also calls for ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent criminals.
But the heart of Riggleman’s pitch is personal: the obstacles he and his wife encountered as they launched Silverback Distillery in 2014. The entrenched liquor interests that ensure distillers pay higher taxes on every bottle than beer and wine sellers do. Conflicting federal and county rules for outdoor lighting. Regulations that, to this day, allow them to serve food on the premises only if they give it away.
He also describes his battle with Dominion, the state’s biggest political donor, over the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. At one point, it was slated to cross his 50-acre distillery property in Nelson County. He says the company is trying to use eminent domain to claim land for a project that is not for the public good, but private gain — a characterization that Dominion has disputed.
What sells Riggleman’s speech is his delivery. He could simply rant that elected officials, lobbyists and corporate bigwigs are in cahoots. Instead, he says they’ve created “a self-licking ice cream cone.” Inspired by his distillery headaches, he’s dubbed his candidacy “the Whiskey Rebellion.”
Riggleman’s personality — blunt but upbeat, never negative toward his rivals — sets him apart from Stewart, who is known for bombastic rhetoric. The stylistic difference sealed the deal for Cindy Kinney, a contract manager for Virginia Commonwealth University. She said Stewart turned her off with his vow to “hunt … down” illegal immigrants.
“There’s a way to defend your principles without alienating everybody,” she said. “Denver doesn’t do that.”
Kinney has been collecting petition signatures to help Riggleman get the 10,000 he needs to get on the ballot. The petitions were on her mind a few weeks ago, after a serious car accident sent her to the emergency room. As soon as she got out of the hospital, she went to the lot where her Subaru had been towed to retrieve them.
“I’m happy to be alive,” she told Riggleman last weekend at an O’Charley’s restaurant, where he was about to speak to a breakfast meeting of the Henrico County GOP. “Your petitions were in the car with me, and I saved them.”
Riggleman seemed overwhelmed by the gesture.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” he said.
But that support has not yet translated into the $150,000 a month he needs to keep going.
Riggleman faced some skeptics during the rest of his day, which included a “greet and shoot” at a Richmond gun range and a meeting of the GOP’s State Central Committee in the gleaming new office tower built by McGuireWoods, the lobbying and legal powerhouse that is the seat of Richmond’s establishment power.
A Dominion engineer at the breakfast, Rick McDonald, stood after the candidate’s speech to say the pipeline would be “a winner for the state.” And in brief remarks to the crowd, Del. Riley Ingram (R-Hopewell) volunteered: “I think the only one that can be elected is Ed Gillespie.”
Riggleman — eating his breakfast in the back of the room with Lloyd, Trump’s Virginia director — shook it off.
“That’s all right,” he told Lloyd, chuckling. “I’ve heard that before.”