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Virginia Race Another Lesson in Trump-Era GOP Cruelty

The state party’s anti-gay dumpster-fire election.
June 15, 2020
Virginia Race Another Lesson in Trump-Era GOP Cruelty
Rep. Denver Riggleman (Left) and the President (Right) (Shutterstock / GettyImages)

The gay wedding bell tolled for Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Virginia) on Saturday as he was defeated by homophobic gadfly and former Liberty University official Bob Good in a jury-rigged “drive-thru” convention that was animated by a single issue: Riggleman’s openness to gay marriage—or, more to the point, his decency and willingness to treat gays as human beings.

This bizarre primary defeat of an incumbent congressman is synecdoche for the Republican party in the age of Trump: a campaign motivated by cruelty; a doubling-down on the basest parts of the party base; plummeting party identification among college-educated voters and suburbanites; and a bit of voter suppression mixed with a touch of gerrymandering.

While all of those issues played a factor in his defeat, none would have been Riggleman’s death knell had he not committed the original sin that opened the door to the primary: Officiating the same-sex wedding of Anthony “Rek” LeCounte and Alex Pisciarino last July.

Riggleman’s seat in Virginia’s 5th district used to be part of a swingy central corridor that sprawled from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border. In the ’90s it was represented by the now-extinct kind of Blue Dog Democrat who could merge the interests of the rural south with the progressive college town. In the early aughts, I was a young field staffer in the district when the then-Democratic representative Virgil Goode switched parties to become an independent and then a Republican as the mores of the district began to align with the shifting national politics. In 2008, Democrat Tom Perriello won the seat on Obama’s coattails by a 727-vote margin. But he was too liberal for the district in a non-Democratic wave year and was swept out in 2010 by Republican Robert Hurt (the brother of Fox News contributor Charlie Hurt).

After 2010 the Virginia GOP put the clamps down on VA-5 as the district was gerrymandered by a Republican legislature to further offset the Charlottesville vote, in an effort “designed to favor Republicans,” according to Virginia politics guru Larry Sabato. That change extended the district north, adding conservative exurban counties between Charlottesville and Washington.

Sabato said the district “just doesn’t make any sense” and while it’s true that the notion of a district that rambles from just outside Dulles Airport to the Martinsville racetrack is absurd on its face, what the Virginia GOP did on top of that was ensure that the nominee for such a district was chosen in the most farcical and undemocratic way imaginable.

Virginia activists have been in a years-long battle to choose nominees at activist-run “conventions” rather than in standard primaries. The state party finally decided to go along with this method. So far, this “reform” has led the party to nominate a white nationalist Confederate cosplayer from Minnesota for the U.S. Senate (and very nearly for governor as well) in a state that is 20 percent black and where the preponderance of the voters are swingy suburban whites.

And while the results have been great in terms of elevating fringe Republicans, they have been bad in terms of winning general elections: Democrats currently hold both Senate seats, 7 of the 11 congressional seats, the governor’s mansion, and a 10-seat majority in the House of delegates in a state that had a strong Republican tilt in the early part of this decade.

But none of that seems to matter to the state GOP, which is more interested in winning intramural fights against moderate Republicans than elections against Democrats.

Is this story starting to sound familiar?

Anyway, you might think that in a year where holding a convention indoors is a public health risk, the Virginia GOP would have moved to a primary. Or provided a vote-by-mail option. But no. Instead the party’s district representatives—many of whom supported Good—chose to hold a “drive-thru” convention at Tree of Life Ministries in Campbell County. Which is a three-hour drive from the Manassas side of the district (where Riggleman was born) and, by total dumb luck, just happens to be Bob Good’s church.

The result was that only about 2,300 people showed up to vote in the 5th-district primary, which is fewer people than voted in the Democratic presidential primary in Campbell County alone—forget the entire district. So while the Democrats are seeing huge increases in turnout from former Republicans and independents in the state’s growing suburbs, the Republicans held a poorly attended church-parking-lot election designed to oust a sitting representative who would have almost certainly held the seat.

Which is about what you’d expect from a downsizing party that is “on the wrong side of every emerging demographic.”

But Good’s entire primary was even more debased than standard issue Trumpism. It was premised on one thing. Not a vote that Riggleman took. Not a comment that he made. It was premised entirely on this picture of Riggleman officiating LeCounte and Pisciarino’s wedding:

By every other measure, Riggleman was following the model playbook for winning as a Republican in 2020. In fact it was Good who had the anti-Trump oppo that has been so damaging in most GOP primaries over the past three years, having said that Trump was “about my 17th choice out of 17” back in 2016. Heck, Good ran a campaign so incompetent he might not even qualify for the general election unless an election board gives him an extension for his lack of signatures.

Riggleman was, by every possible measure, a Republican in good standing. He was endorsed by Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. He voted with Trump and the GOP leadership 95 percent of the time. And when gay issues came up for a vote, Riggleman sided with social conservatives. He voted against a resolution condemning Trump’s ban on allowing transgender people to serve in the military and Democratic efforts to include sexual orientation and gender as protected classes in anti-discrimination law.

Yet none of that mattered, because of the wedding photo.

In an interview last week, Good tried to conjure other reasons for the primary, pointing a reporter to Riggleman’s rating from ivoterguide as proof that he was not conservative on issues other than gay marriage. The weird part was that this extremely janky random website gives Riggleman a 95 percent conservative rating and the only three issues it lists as his apostasies are: (1) officiating the gay wedding; (2) supporting a compromise bill on wall funding (that Trump signed); and (3) opposing the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria.

So. The wall compromise was Trump-approved. And supporting the Kurds was the actual conservative position. Which really just leaves one thing, which isn’t even an “issue.”

Good and his supporters weren’t even shy about pushing on the gay-wedding until they began to draw national attention late in the campaign.

Good’s campaign website posted an article about how homosexuality was a psychological condition. In videos of his early campaign events he consistently raised the wedding issue in his stump speech. One Good surrogate said Riggleman should “not be out on the very front lines performing the service.” Another made a video in which she discussed how “queers” want the same rights as Christians: “They’re strange people, and they want your rights and you cannot appease them.” In the same video she said, “You had a black man in the president for eight years and you’re crying foul, or white supremacy? You give the devil an inch, and he’ll be your ruler. These minorities will not be satisfied.” At one point LeCounte and Pisciarino attended one of Good’s campaign events to see for themselves. Good raised their wedding as an issue even knowing they were in the audience.

So there you have it.

There is no way to view this except as a form of deep, soul-sucking hatred.

These are the same people who once insisted that Donald Trump’s moral trainwreck didn’t matter because he was running for president, not pastor.

These are the same people who once insisted that Republicans had to vote for Roy Moore, no matter how distasteful it might be, because the cause of justice required every possible seat to be held by the party.

Yet when it came to a sitting Republican who treated two gay volunteers to his campaign with the same affection and dignity he treated straight ones, Virginia’s Republicans did everything possible to put the 5th district seat at risk.

Part of me wonders if the reaction would have been this vicious had Riggleman voted in favor of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act or cast some other quiet vote for gay rights. I suspect not.

A vote is abstract. It might impact some people over there. But that has a different valence than having to approve of something you see right in front of you.

I suspect that Riggleman’s real sin was signaling that he liked them. That he didn’t share the same grievances as the (shrinking number of) Virginia Republican regulars.

His sin was treating gays as humans worthy of equal respect and equal dignity. It didn’t matter if the grooms were actually Republicans, too. That picture was something from the other tribe, forced upon them.

And in that sense—despite having the Donald Trump Twitter seal of approval—Riggleman ran afoul of the core feature of the Trump era.

He wasn’t willing to be cruel to the Americans that Republican voters hate, be they “Demoncrats” or the media or immigrants or Black Lives Matter protesters or in certain places, gays.

So he was cast out.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.