When Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) announced last month that he would leave Congress at the end of his term, it came as such a shock that Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) called to ask if he was sick.
He wasn’t. Both he and Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.) are young (for congressmen), healthy, popular and perched on powerful committees. Both were expected to win reelection easily this fall. Instead, both are stepping down.
Each lawmaker said he had been blessed to serve and was ready to rejoin the private sector. But observers in the state say it isn’t that simple. They think Rigell and Hurt were caught in a bind between leadership on Capitol Hill and restive conservative activists at home.
“Both are by nature civil and reasonable in their approach to legislating. Both went to Washington to get something done,” University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato said of Rigell and Hurt. “And both have been, at various points, attacked for being insufficiently pure. Both have had enough, and want to do other things while there’s still time.”
Hurt and Rigell came to Washington in the Republican wave of 2010, but both were viewed with skepticism by the tea party movement that helped fuel that victory. Rigell defeated a tea-party-backed rival who took a quarter of the primary vote; during his campaign, he was pressured into signing a “pledge” to support tea party positions.
Hurt, whose district spans central Virginia, was attacked throughout the primary for voting to raise taxes while in the state legislature. After winning his seat, he voted to suspend the debt ceiling in January 2013 and keep the government open that spring — positions that are anathema to the tea party. In 2014 he voted for a farm bill that tea party groups opposed.
Rigell, whose district includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, worked across party lines with Kaine on a new Iraq war authorization bill and with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) on tighter gun-sale laws. In 2012, he went back on his pledge to never raise taxes, saying an increase was necessary to reduce the national debt. He was the only Republican to vote against a 2013 GOP budget bill defunding Obamacare, which he refused to support because it would have continued the sequester.
At first, Rigell said, he would go back to his district and try to explain his votes. But he eventually realized that that wasn’t what people wanted. “I think of it like a cauldron of fear, anger, bewilderment, some despair,” he said. “I think it’s toxic.” He said the toxicity isn’t the reason he’s retiring, but it contributed to the “intensity” that he is ready to leave behind.
“Rigell struck me as a man without a country,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who would lunch with his Republican colleagues once a month. “He seemed increasingly uncomfortable in the Republican environment, but he’s not a Democrat. So where do you go?”
Hurt and Rigell also have bucked the GOP establishment at times, with Hurt in particular breaking with leadership on government funding bills. Rigell voted against House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last year; Hurt said he might have if a strong alternative had emerged. But beyond such occasional protests, fellow Republicans say, lawmakers have little ability while in office to respond to their constituents’ anger about party leadership.
“They’ll go to a Rotary meeting and everybody [will] just sit there complaining . . . about the federal government,” said state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), a former local party chairman who declined to run for Hurt’s seat. Elected officials may share their constituents’ frustration, he added, “but there’s not much they can do to make the changes that people desperately want right now.”
Hurt said defending his votes to constituents was “one of the joys, if you will, of being a legislator.” However, he said, he is ready for a change. “I’ve loved it,” he said of his time in Congress, “but I’m also looking forward to getting back to private life.”
For Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) is a constant reminder of the danger incumbents can face. He unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, propelled by support from frustrated conservative voters. And he has stayed loyal to that base, helping to form a caucus in the House that regularly battles leadership.
Unlike Rigell, Brat is entirely comfortable with an angry, anti-government crowd. At a recent town hall with a tea party group in his district, he joked that “you’ll all get worked up in a lather and we’ll go from there . . . it won’t take much to get this room excited.”
The departures of Hurt and Rigell mean the loss of even more of Virginia’s seniority — and therefore clout — on Capitol Hill. In addition to Cantor, veteran Rep. Frank R. Wolf retired from Congress in 2014.
“My fear is that they will be replaced by candidates that are a lot more ideological and combative in their approach to politics and policy, and that’s one of the problems we have in the Congress right now,” said former Virginia lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, a Republican who has been critical of the tea party movement. “We need more mainstream people in Congress, not more ideologues.”
In Northern Virginia, Wolf’s seat is now held by Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican, who must strike a balance between the activists in her party’s base and her more moderate constituents, many of whom are federal workers.
When conservatives in her district pushed for a nominating convention this year, rather than a primary, her supporters pushed back, knowing that such conventions are usually dominated by the party’s most extreme wing. Comstock’s base won that battle; as of now, she is running unopposed in the primary, which will be held June 14.
There are competitive GOP primaries for Hurt’s and Rigell’s seats. In Hurt’s district, current candidates include state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett (R-Buckingham), real estate developer Jim McKelvey, former technology executive Michael Del Rosso and House Armed Services Committee staffer Joseph Whited. One Democrat, Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar, is running unopposed.
McKelvey, in his campaign announcement, said, Republicans in Washington have “completely let down the American people by merging with liberal Democrats.”
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R), whose district has become far more Democratic under a new court-imposed map, will run for the seat Rigell is vacating. Although Forbes has charted a more conservative path than his departing colleague, including helping to narrowly defeat a Department of Homeland Security funding bill, he is a stalwart champion of the state’s defense industry and is well-situated on the House Armed Services Committee.
But Forbes will probably face competition in the primary. Del. Scott Taylor (R-Virginia Beach), who wrote a book about the Obama administration called “Trust Betrayed,” is running. So is Pat Cardwell, a Virginia attorney who was planning to challenge Rigell in the primary before Rigell decided to bow out.
“Republican leadership is spineless,” Cardwell said in a statement announcing his campaign. “Washington insiders have completely lost touch with the American people.”