The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They served in Congress as Virginia Republicans. Now they’ve joined a national effort to reform the party.

Tear gas fired by police billows around supporters of President Donald Trump as they attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Scott Rigell had no hard feelings when he resigned from the Virginia Beach GOP in 2016 after becoming the first Republican member of Congress to endorse Libertarian Gary Johnson over Donald Trump. He said he was still a “proud member” of the Republican Party.

Over the next four years, however, that pride dwindled. And after the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol, Rigell became a political independent. He said he couldn’t stomach seeing his former colleagues “hold on to the proven falsehood that the election was stolen.”

“I am still to this day stunned that the Republican Party elevated, embraced — and continues to, to this day — a man I think is a complete moral wasteland, not only personally but in the public square,” he said.

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Rigell is one of three former Republican members of Congress from Virginia to join a national open call this month to reform the GOP and steer it away from Trumpian politics after the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the House GOP conference chair. The others are former representatives Barbara Comstock and Denver Riggleman.

The group — dubbed “A Call for American Renewal” — also includes Marylanders Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor, and Wayne Gilchrest and Connie Morella, both former members of Congress (Gilchrest announced in 2019 that he had become a Democrat). Its organizers stopped short of calling for a new party but seemed to flirt with the possibility.

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While in Congress, Comstock, Rigell and Riggleman were reliable conservative votes on a wide range of issues including border security and deregulation, making their evolution into GOP critics a stark example of the schism Trump has created within the traditional political right.

Riggleman, who also no longer calls himself a Republican, was a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus. Rigell, who served three terms representing Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District before deciding not to seek reelection in 2016, says he backs building a wall on the southern border. Comstock, who still identifies with the party, supported Trump’s 2017 tax cut.

But they have drawn the line at echoing Trump’s false claims about a rigged 2020 election. In contrast, all four of Virginia’s current Republican members of Congress objected to President Biden’s electoral victory during the counting of electoral college votes Jan. 6.

“Some want to have a new party, but I’m in the category of wanting to have a much healthier two-party system and center-right Republican Party that embraces the rule of law,” said Comstock, who lost to Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District during the 2018 blue wave. “Pushing back against January 6 was a dividing line. You cannot support the Big Lie and be a constitutional conservative.”

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Trump’s falsehoods and divisive style drove centrist voters away from the GOP, nationally and in Virginia, political analysts say, ultimately speeding the commonwealth’s shift from swing-state purple to Democratic blue.

Virginia Republicans who oppose or criticize Trump are being shunned or sidelined within the party, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, while those who embrace him struggle to win statewide elections or suburban swing districts.

The next test in Virginia will come this fall, when GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, who embraced Trump and won the former president’s endorsement, will compete against the winner of the June 8 Democratic primary.

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“At the moment, these three former members of Congress are more like voices crying in a Republican wilderness,” Farnsworth said. “Will the party come around to their way of thinking? I think a lot depends on the success or failure of Republican candidates who are all in in their support of former president Trump. If Republicans get swept again in statewide elections, the arguments offered by Riggleman and Comstock and Rigell may make more sense to some of the die-hard activists.”

Virginia GOP Chairman Rich Anderson said he hasn’t heard other Republicans in the state voice concerns that Trump’s election-fraud claims were harming the party. But he also did not criticize Comstock, Rigell or Riggleman for their efforts.

“We are a broad-based party, and they are bona fide Republicans,” Anderson said, noting that he knows Comstock and Riggleman personally and considers them friends. “There is a place for them in our party. Politics is about addition. And I believe in an individual in our party having freedom of thought and expression.”

The three former lawmakers have taken varied approaches in their personal missions to reform the GOP.

Rigell says he no longer has faith in the two-party system, believing political tribalism and hyperpartisan gerrymandering have squashed honest policy debate. Rather than support the creation of a new party, Rigell said he’s lobbying for the election of dozens more independents to Congress, which he believes would stymie partisan deadlock.

Under the current system, “independent thought is not rewarded. It is punished,” he said.

He described his decision to leave the Republican Party as an evolution that began with the party’s failure to repudiate Trump’s behavior and lies and reached a fever pitch after Jan. 6, when GOP lawmakers overwhelmingly backed Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen.

“It really troubled me to see [House GOP leader] Kevin McCarthy contort himself in logic to accommodate this view,” Rigell said.

Comstock, who came out against Trump’s candidacy in 2016, after he was heard on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women, said she wants to work from the inside to change the party’s direction. She serves on the board of Keep Country First Policy Action, a nonprofit group tied to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a prominent Trump critic; and Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, each of which backs mostly right-of-center Republican women.

Comstock views detaching Republican candidates from Trump as key to winning swing states and taking back the House majority — a view echoed by many critics of the former president but forcefully rejected by the GOP caucus when it replaced Cheney with Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.). That rejection, Comstock said, is what made signing onto the call for GOP reform feel so urgent.

“We’ve never had this cult of personality where you had to pick a person over issues. It’s just juvenile,” she said. “As Liz said, if you don’t stand up to the liar, it’s going to continue. . . . [Trump] has a burn-it-down mentality; if he can’t win, he doesn’t care if Republicans win or not. It’s like, I do care if Republicans win.”

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Riggleman has launched his own crusade, identifying political extremism and the sources of disinformation on the Internet through his work with the Network Contagion Research Institute. The organization recruited Riggleman toward the end of his term in Congress, as he emerged as the most outspoken Republican on the dangers of QAnon and Trump’s flirtation with it.

Riggleman had already earned the ire of social conservatives after officiating at the same-sex wedding of two of his former staffers in 2019. He ran for reelection but was ousted by now-Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) in a nominating convention that showed the strength of far-right factions in the Virginia GOP.

Next, Riggleman made a home for himself on cable news, where he trashed not only Trump’s conspiracy mongering but also his former Republican colleagues’ refusal to condemn the president’s election falsehoods.

“You have those collecting intel on the inside and trying to [change the party] from within,” he said of those who have joined the GOP reform call. “Then you have the outside individuals bombing the flanks.”

Which one is he? “The special soul who can do both.”

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He noted that he has kept friendships with many conservative members of Congress but doesn’t care much about burning bridges with Trump loyalists, including his successor in Congress.

“Have I told you how much I . . . hate politics?” he said, using an expletive for emphasis as he made the point for the third time in a half-hour interview.

Like Comstock and Rigell, he said he viewed Youngkin — a business-minded fiscal conservative who defeated several Trumpier candidates — as the GOP’s best shot to retake the Virginia governor’s mansion this fall.

At the same time, Riggleman declined to say whether the nominee will have his vote; Comstock and Rigell declared their full support of Younkin.

Other former Republicans who represented Virginia in Congress in the Trump era have not joined the reform effort. Dave Brat declined to comment on the issue, and Thomas Garrett did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Scott W. Taylor — who succeeded Rigell in the purplish 2nd District for one term, then lost narrowly to Rep. Elaine Luria (D) in 2018 — said he finds himself somewhere in the middle.

“I think there are policies that came with the last administration that are very, very good that I supported,” he said. “At the same time, I understand the Liz Cheneys and Barbara Comstocks of the world. . . . You can’t center the party around a personality. It’s got to be bigger.”

Taylor ran for Congress again last year, largely on Trump’s “America First” platform. He lost again to Luria, this time by six percentage points.

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