The district is among about 100 nationwide that Democrats are targeting in hopes of taking control of the House in the midterm elections.
It is a reliably red seat, but the pressure was on activists to choose a candidate who can unite hard-line conservative, libertarian and moderate Republicans and overcome a blue wave if it materializes.
“You’ve never seen a fighter like Denver Riggleman,” the nominee said in a speech after his selection. “I’ve been through hell, and I’ve got hell to give!”
The nominee was decided after five hours and four rounds of secret balloting that came down to two candidates: Riggleman and Cynthia Dunbar, a national GOP committeewoman with far-right views.
Her nomination would have improved Cockburn’s chances for an upset in November, but party handicappers view Riggleman as a more pragmatic choice.
Over the past few days, Riggleman promised to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus, of which Garrett is a member.
State Democrats accused Riggleman of cutting deals to win the nomination in a divided party.
“Leslie Cockburn has been traveling the district for almost a year, meeting voters where they are,” party spokesman Jake Rubenstein said in a statement. “Leslie will be loyal to them in Congress, not to backroom promises or the House Freedom Caucus.”
Riggleman, who leans libertarian, gained a statewide following during a short-lived campaign for governor in 2017.
He ran as a populist stymied by regulatory roadblocks that he and his wife, Christine, encountered as they opened Silverback Distillery outside Charlottesville. He also highlighted his battle with Dominion Power, which at one point planned to route a large natural gas pipeline through his property.
The vote came less than a week after Garrett revealed that he is an alcoholic and abruptly abandoned his reelection bid, triggering a scramble to select a Republican nominee.
Instead of a traditional campaign with rallies and mailers, hopefuls personally rallied the 37 members of a party committee steeped in local politics and Republican orthodoxy.
Dunbar lost a contentious convention two weeks ago in the neighboring 6th District, where she lives, but she had strong connections on the 5th District committee, including at least two voting members who worked on her latest campaign.
Dunbar has called the separation of church and state a “fallacious principle” and says Democrats who support their party’s platform cannot be true Christians, according to her book “One Nation Under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great.”
“This is a nightmare for the RNC,” commentator John Fredericks said on his radio show, referring to the Republican National Committee, in a broadcast from the meeting when it appeared Dunbar might win the nomination.
The committee and a few hundred observers gathered in the auditorium of Nelson County High School to choose from among at least a half-dozen candidates who publicly entered the race days ago.
But Dunbar’s camp took advantage of quirks of the rules making it possible for a surprise candidate to swoop in and pick up enough votes to win.
She wrapped up a big chunk of the committee during an initial round of voting, followed by Riggleman, and by veteran Joe Whited and Michael Del Rosso, who both ran for the nomination in 2016. Land-use activist Martha Boneta and state Del. Michael Webert (R-Marshall.) were eliminated.
Three hours into the meeting, Dunbar lost support on a second ballot and Riggleman gained votes. During a fourth and final vote, Riggleman’s team used control of the House as a negotiating tactic, telling members that if Democrats win the majority they will impeach Trump.
Early in the day, establishment Republicans, especially those watching from Richmond, were pulling for state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), but he quickly took himself out of the running and looked toward statewide office in 2021.
“I’m not built for Congress,” Stanley said on the radio. “I want to do something. I don’t want to be one of 435. I’m either going to be the next attorney general or governor because we need to take those state offices back.”
The massive, triangle-shaped district, which is bigger in area than New Jersey, runs from Fauquier County in the north down to the Shenandoah Valley, through Appomattox and across Southside Virginia.
As voting began, Cockburn, who lives in Rappahannock in the 5th District, told supporters in an email: “Today, Republican party officials are planning to handpick their nominee to represent our district in Congress... Regardless of who they choose, one thing is certain: we won’t be stopped.”
Independent analysts assess the district as “leans Republican” or “likely Republican,” ratings unlikely to change after Saturday’s vote.
Garrett won election by 16 percentage points in 2016, outperforming President Trump by about five points to succeed retiring Rep. Robert Hurt (R). Republican Ed Gillespie won the district by nine points in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race.