The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Riggleman ousted in Virginia GOP convention after presiding over same-sex marriage

Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) greets delegates Saturday as they arrive to cast votes at a drive-through convention in Lynchburg, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

Freshman Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who drew criticism from within his party for presiding over a same-sex wedding, lost the GOP nomination to challenger Bob Good, a former Liberty University fundraiser who describes himself as a “biblical conservative.”

The defeat of Riggleman potentially puts the central Virginia seat within reach for Democrats in the general election for the first time in more than a decade, analysts say.

Riggleman is the first of 73 candidates endorsed by President Trump this cycle to lose an election, marring the president’s undefeated record.

Good won a drive-through nomination contest outside Lynchburg on Saturday with 58 percent of the vote, said Melvin Adams, chairman of the 5th District Republican Committee. The results were announced early Sunday, more than six hours after voting ended.

Riggleman had not conceded as of Sunday morning, saying he was evaluating his options — which could include legal action against the party committee — amid reports of “voting irregularities and ballot stuffing.”

“Voter fraud has been a hallmark of this nomination process and I will not stand for it,” Riggleman tweeted at midnight. A campaign spokesman would not elaborate on the alleged anomalies.

In response to Riggleman’s tweet, Good told reporters outside his campaign headquarters at the Forest Family Fellowship church early Sunday: “That’s what losers say. . . . The sad thing is people remember how you leave.”

In remarks streamed live on Facebook, Good said convention delegates embraced his “true conservative principles,” including his originalist interpretation of the Constitution and hard-line immigration policy that puts “Americans first.” He pledged to turn Virginia’s 5th District “bright red” in November and said voters would reject the “radical socialist agenda” of Democrats.

Independent analysts at the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved predictions for the general election early Sunday from the “likely Republican” to “leans Republican” column.

“Congressman Riggleman was clearly the stronger general-election candidate, but the Republican Party of Virginia does not always select the strongest general-election candidates,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Virginia Democratic Party and several Democrats vying for the nomination to the open seat immediately cast Good as too extreme for the district. They pointed to Good’s opposition to abortion without exception, support for eliminating birthright citizenship and his desire to make English the national language.

Republicans are “a party defined by incompetence and bigotry, and Bob Good has plenty of both,” Grant Fox, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, said in a statement.

Four Democrats are competing in a June 23 Democratic primary, including three Marine veterans — R.D. Huffstetler, an entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2018; John Lesinski, who worked in commercial real estate; and Claire Russo, who talks candidly about being sexually assaulted in the military — as well as physician Cameron Webb.

Huffstetler had the most cash on hand by the start of June, with $286,811, followed by Russo with $201,530, Webb with $139,661 and Lesinski with $36,078, finance reports show. Riggleman outspent Good, who had about $34,482 cash on hand by the end of May.

On Saturday, 2,537 preregistered party loyalists came from throughout the sprawling district to cast ballots in the parking lot of Tree of Life Ministries. The convention did not feature the traditional speeches and horse-trading because of social distancing restrictions intended to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Riggleman’s campaign had complained for weeks that Good had an unfair advantage and said the nomination should be decided through a primary. The convention was held in Campbell County, where Good was a county supervisor for four years.

While it was a convenient location for Good’s supporters, many of Riggleman’s backers had to drive up to six hours round trip to vote for him.

Riggleman, an Air Force intelligence officer and distillery owner with a libertarian streak, made headlines as a Bigfoot aficionado in his first campaign. Once in Congress, GOP leaders say, he leveraged his experience in the military and as a small-business owner to stand out among the freshman class.

Good accused Riggleman of being out of touch with the party’s base, in part because the congressman presided over the same-sex wedding of two campaign volunteers in 2019.

Farnsworth, the political scientist, said Trump’s endorsement of Riggleman and the congressman’s record of voting mostly with the president’s agenda weren’t enough to hold off a well-organized challenge.

“The congressman’s mistake was not recognizing how insistent the Christian conservative community would be in supporting only Republican candidates who fully adopt their vision of Republicanism,” he said. “Riggleman had one questionable day in his two years as a congressman, and that’s the day that sunk him.”

Virginia’s 5th District is reliably conservative, choosing Trump by double digits over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. The massive district, which is larger in area than New Jersey, runs from Fauquier County to the Shenandoah Valley, through Appomattox and into Southside Virginia along the North Carolina border.

The last time a Democrat won the seat was in 2008, when Tom Perriello out-campaigned incumbent Republican Virgil Goode and rode a wave of high turnout among African Americans and Charlottesville residents galvanized by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. But Perriello won by fewer than 1,000 votes, and redistricting has slightly boosted the GOP position since then.

Good missed the Tuesday deadline for filing a key form related to his candidacy, but he hand-delivered the form to the state elections office on Friday afternoon, election officials said. The board of elections routinely offers extensions in cases like these, and modified election dates in response to the coronavirus pandemic may have created confusion about the deadline.

Riggleman narrowly won the 5th District nomination in 2018 in a rare meeting of party committee insiders, who chose him days after then-Rep. Thomas Garrett (R) revealed he was an alcoholic and abruptly abandoned his reelection bid.

In addition to Trump’s endorsement, Riggleman was endorsed by the influential president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Falwell’s brother, Jonathan Falwell, backed Good, as did Garrett and E.W. Jackson, a firebrand minister who won the party’s 2013 nomination for lieutenant governor — also at a convention.

Adams, the 5th District GOP committee chairman, defended the convention process.

“Candidates are very important,” he said last week. “But candidates come and go, and when we have elections, our delegates are king, okay? . . . Their votes are the ones that count.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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