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Upheaval opens door for Republican outsider in Virginia congressional race

Denver Riggleman, a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia,  stands for the national anthem in July at the Madison County Fair.
Denver Riggleman, a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia, stands for the national anthem in July at the Madison County Fair. (Norm Shafer The Washington Post)

FARMVILLE, Va. — Denver Riggleman ran for Virginia governor last year as many things — killer of terrorists, distiller of whiskey, irritant to powerful interests. Big fundraiser he was not, and his quest for the GOP nod quickly crumbled.

That’s the way it goes for underfunded upstarts unless something strange happens — something like freshman congressman Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) announcing in late May that he is an alcoholic and will not seek reelection. What followed was a five-day nomination scramble that Riggleman won without spending a dime, by persuading a few dozen party officials to choose him.

The odd circumstances in Virginia’s 5th District opened the door to an outsider with an unvarnished style and positions on policy sometimes at odds with both the traditional Republican Party and President Trump.

Rep. Garrett announces he is an alcoholic and will not seek reelection

Riggleman wants to stop illegal immigration but calls for more migrant farmworkers and fast-tracked legal immigration. He wants Planned Parenthood defunded and marijuana decriminalized. He wants government shrunk, cronyism smashed and same-sex marriage treated the same as any other.

“Liberty Republican” is how Riggleman, up against Democrat Leslie Cockburn in November, brands himself.

Leslie Cockburn:From red to blue and from reporter to politician

“I feel like we’re radically common­sense,” Riggleman said between campaign stops one recent Saturday at a Farmville coffee shop. “We have this whole swath of people who aren’t far left or aren’t far right, that seem just to be looking for solutions. And I wonder if that’s even a space that anybody can take anymore.”

In a bright red district stretching from rural Washington exurbs to the North Carolina border, Riggleman may have the leeway to blaze his own trail. Religious conservatives who nearly delivered the nomination to a hard-right rival seem to have gotten on board. Younger Republicans see him as a way to salvage the GOP brand from the divisive provocateur atop the ticket, Republican Senate nominee Corey Stewart.

With Corey Stewart atop the ticket, Virginia Republicans are in turmoil

“Denver is definitely the breed of Republican that the party needs to get behind quick if they want to be competitive long-term,” said Tanner Hirschfeld, 20, chairman of the Central Virginia Young Republicans. “These old social issues are really not going to appeal to the up-and-coming generation.”

Talk-radio host John Fredericks considers Riggleman a lifeline for a party that has not won a statewide contest since 2009. “He represents the future of the Republican Party in Virginia — if we’re going to have one,” Fredericks said.

Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political-science professor, said Riggleman should benefit from the deep-red character of the district, where Democrats have not garnered more than 40 percentage points in the past 10 statewide elections.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 5th District by 11 points in 2016, even as Clinton carried the state by more than five points. Amid a blue wave the next year that gave Democrat Ralph Northam a nine-point win in the governor’s race, the district favored Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points.

“He’s somebody who looks like he should be able to unify some of the different wings of the Republican Party,” Holsworth said, noting Riggleman’s “engaging personality” and a libertarian streak that has kept him from embracing some far-right positions. “Given the tilt of the district, he certainly has to be considered the favorite.”

Independent analysts say the race leans Republican.

A new kind of Republicanor more of the same?

Though largely rural, the district varies widely in character and politics, from blue-blood polo country to struggling mill towns, with a few liberal college communities in the mix. So when Riggleman came across meat sticks made from yak at the Farmville farmers market, it wasn’t clear whether they were a backwoods delicacy or yuppified Slim Jims.

Either way, Riggleman was going to buy some, eat them and chat up the vendor, Bob Stratton, 46, who manages the market and works weekdays on HVAC systems. Stratton grumbled that Washington was in a state of unceasing outrage over Trump, who was his choice for president.

“The sides don’t want to get along no more,” said Stratton, 46, who lives in Appomattox. “You see it every day: Trump’s doing the same thing that Obama was doing in a lot of respects and, oh, my God, the media’s just blasting him out of the water.”

Riggleman chimed in agreeably, “That’s right.”

It was a textbook retail-politics moment, and Riggleman seemed to have made the sale. Except he kept chatting — and risked offending his new friend.

“As a Republican,” Riggleman volunteered, “I don’t agree 100 percent with everything Trump does.”

Riggleman likes Trump’s tax cuts and regulatory pullbacks. But unlike the president, he unequivocally condemned the white supremacists who rallied last year in Charlottesville, the district’s biggest city. He opposes tariffs that hurt local dairy farmers, calls raising the debt ceiling a bad idea and says separating immigrant children from their parents should be avoided.

Riggleman has said nothing about the president’s temperament or fitness for office, or the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, or whether Congress is performing its role as a check on executive power — issues that consume Washington but don’t come up much as he travels the district.

Cockburn, Riggleman’s opponent, dismisses the notion that he’s offering anything new, noting that he has pledged to join the conservative Freedom Caucus.

“Denver is more of the same,” said Cockburn spokeswoman Louise Bruce.

Cockburn’s most attention-grabbing attack on him was hardly ordinary political fare: She accused him of being a “devotee of Bigfoot erotica.”

What is Bigfoot erotica?

The claim stems from a book about Bigfoot that Riggleman says he once penned as satire, a joke among military buddies. It was never published, but he put a sample chapter on Facebook. It went viral when it surfaced. Titled “Mating Habits of Bigfoot and Why Women Want Him,” it had a sketch of Sasquatch with a strategically placed “censored” box on the cover.

Riggleman said he was amazed that Cockburn seemed to take it seriously.

Fatherhood forces a change

Gray-haired at 48, Riggleman chuckles at the notion that he is anybody’s idea of a fresh political face. The future distiller was born in Manassas on St. Patrick’s Day 1970 to a teen mom who stood not quite 5 feet and drove a school bus to make ends meet.

His teen dad handed down a colorful family name with no basis in geography — he’s Denver Riggleman III, but “I don’t think they’d ever been west of the Mississippi,” the candidate said — then left by the time Riggleman was 2, six weeks after his sister was born.

A few years later, his mother remarried a repairman for the Washington Water and Sewer Authority, and together they had four more boys. When he was 10 they moved from a small apartment to his mother’s childhood home — all of 1,500 square feet, with one working bathroom.

“It was a lean childhood but a loving childhood,” Riggleman said.

Even as a youngster, Riggleman had consuming passions and an easy way with people, said his mother, Connie Sines, who recalled him always having a book or football in his hands. When she and “Denny” took a trip once to visit her sister in Texas, he walked up and down the airplane aisle, chatting up strangers.

“And this one gentleman came up to me in a suit and tie and said, ‘Is this your son?’ ” Sines said. “I think he had just turned 4. ‘This child is so knowledgeable. . . . He’s quite a character.’ He said, ‘This little boy’s going places.’ ”

At Stonewall Jackson High School, Riggleman played running back, wooed a girl named Christine Blair over Wendy’s burgers and worked as a fry cook, farmhand and roofer. Less dedicated to academics, he graduated “somewhere in the lower middle” of his class, he said.

He and Christine married at 19, initially living in her parents’ basement. He worked construction jobs, won a few state powerlifting contests and halfheartedly attended community college.

“I was a bit of a loser,” he said wryly.

Three years into their marriage, Riggleman found his purpose in a hurry when Christine, then attending college and working part time for a NASA contractor, got pregnant. He enlisted in the Air Force to get the structure — and health insurance — he needed.

“You know what makes you serious? Knowing I had a baby coming with a wife working her tail off,” Riggleman said, adding that he graduated first out of about 40 in his basic-training class. “The military was the best thing for me.”

He served as an avionics technician at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and within three years won an Air Force scholarship to attend the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs, with a focus on Eastern Europe — a specialty that, along with subsequent intelligence work, has made him a skeptic of Russia even as Trump has embraced Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Riggleman went on to serve around the world as a commissioned intelligence officer. After 9/11, he deployed to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to plan the first bombing raids over Afghanistan.

He left the service in 2003 to work as an Air Force contractor. A few years later, Riggleman co-founded what became a multimillion-dollar contracting company, Analyst Warehouse, specializing in counterterrorism and critical infrastructure analysis. InDyne acquired it in 2012, and he left three years later, ready for an entirely different sort of ad­ven­ture. Just what that would be was up to Christine.

“When he was done with his company, he said: ‘Where do you want to move? You followed me around everywhere,’ ” Christine said. “I just wanted to come home to Virginia.”

They bought 40 acres in Nelson County, and Christine, itching to launch her own business, looked around at neighboring wineries and craft breweries and decided there might be a niche in whiskey. The couple opened Silverback Distillery in 2014.

Riggleman, who still does defense consulting, is her partner in the venture, but Christine is the CEO and master distiller. She makes up one of the nation’s few mother-daughter distilling duos with Lauren, 25, who has a master’s degree in fermentation sciences. The Rigglemans have two other daughters: Abby, 24, a film producer, and Lilly, 21, a student at James Madison University.

The Rigglemans ran into obstacles as they launched the distillery, from entrenched liquor interests to bureaucracy. The tangle of red tape extended to conflicting federal and county rules governing the distillery’s outdoor lighting.

Along the way, the couple learned Dominion Energy planned to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a controversial natural-gas project, right through their land.

Perched high up in a tree, a 61-year-old woman fights a pipeline

Dominion later altered the proposed route, sparing the Rigglemans’ property. Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said that change was made in early 2015 — before Riggleman entered politics — because the company found a better spot for the pipeline to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, shifting the entire Nelson County section to the south.

Riggleman remains fiercely opposed to the project, which his daughter Abby made the subject of a documentary, “Won’t Pipe Down.” Riggleman’s opponent, Cockburn, also opposes it.

Outsider for Virginia governor learns it’s hard to run as a rebel — even in the Trump era

The shift frompersonal to political

Those twin battles fueled Riggleman’s short-lived bid for governor in 2017. He saw himself as the little guy up against special interests and big government. When Garrett surprised political circles with his Memorial Day announcement that he was vacating his seat, Riggleman jumped in within hours.

His impulse to run raises a question for a man who likes to get things done: Won’t all that congressional dysfunction drive him nuts?

“Yes,” he said flatly. But somebody has to do it.

“If everybody says its broken and can’t be fixed, so nobody gets involved, what happens to our country?” he said. “I’m a reasonable guy running, because I find it completely unreasonable that we can’t have solutions to the problems right now. That’s why I’m here, right? Win or lose.”

Riggleman has raised money at a rapid clip — more than $200,000 in his first 28 days as nominee, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. But he is far behind Cockburn, a former “60 Minutes” producer and author who has been in the race for more than a year and has raised $1.3 million. Among Riggleman’s major donors are the free-market Club for Growth PAC and well-known Virginia politicians, including former governor James Gilmore, as well as several state legislators and Cathy Gillespie, wife of 2017 gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has not spent money on the race but named Riggleman to its “Young Guns” list, a signal to donors that he is a good investment.

Shortly before he became the nominee, Riggleman sat down with Chris Shores, a prominent conservative Christian activist who opposes abortion in all cases and same-sex marriage. Riggleman says that the government ought to stay out of marriage but that if it grants licenses for some, it cannot discriminate. Riggleman opposes abortion but, unlike Shores, says it should be allowed in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is at stake.

“He goes, ‘Tell me your beliefs,’ ” Riggleman recalled. “I said, ‘Here they are: Boom, boom, boom.’ He goes, ‘Um, I don’t agree with you on all of them, but most of the stuff we do agree on. . . . But you’re a good man and you’re honest.’ And I tell you what. That right there is, I think, the most important — I think it’s the highest compliment you can get.”

Shores confirmed that account and said he appreciated that Riggleman did not simply tell him what he wanted to hear.

After their meeting, Shores still wanted the nomination to go to someone else: Cynthia Dunbar, a former Texas school board member who has called the separation of church and state a “fallacious principle.” But once Riggleman got the nod, Shores hosted a breakfast to introduce him to Republicans from Cumberland, Buckingham and Prince Edward counties.

“Denver has my 100 percent support,” Shores said. “I think he has a great personal story to tell. He came from a very poor family, made his way in life, pulled himself up by the bootstraps, wasn’t seeking to get involved in politics — but politics got involved with him. ‘I’m up against all these regulations.’ ”

The candidate says he does not hear a lot of “esoteric political crap” out on the trail. More often than not, voters give voice to the day-to-day frustrations that spurred him into politics.

One afternoon in July, Riggleman rolled up to a Madison cattle farm so picturesque that Wegmans made videos there to showcase it as a supplier of antibiotics-free beef. Clay Jackson, 34, a third-generation cattleman at Senterfitt Farms, was upset by new federal rules for livestock haulers that he said would stress his animals and cost him money. The part that really stuck in his craw — trucks that carry moviemaking equipment around the country won an exemption, thanks to Hollywood’s powerful lobbyists.

Jackson offered a message for the federal government: “If you want to help us, just leave us the hell alone.”

Back at the Farmville farmers market, Riggleman heard a tale of twice-regulated tomatoes from Stratton, the yak-stick vendor who also manages the market.

“My produce vendor, if he brings cherry tomatoes in a Ziploc bag and the top of bag is open, he’s selling tomatoes,” Stratton said. “If he zips that bag shut, it’s now packaged produce.” The former is regulated by the Agriculture Department, the latter by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The regulations change totally,” Stratton said. “And if he doesn’t know that, he’s in trouble if the wrong person comes through, just because he zipped the bag shut.”

Riggleman could relate only too well.

“The people I’m talking to in the 5th, all the farmers and everybody, it’s more about their realistic idea about what business is,” he said. “It’s not what left or right is. It’s what you’ve got to do to survive.”

This is the second part of a two-part look at the candidates running for an open seat in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District.