By Jim EllisJune 16, 2020 — Despite Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Manassas) being the incumbent representative for the state’s 5th District, losing his party’s re-nomination for a second term on Saturday came as no surprise.
Largely blamed upon his presiding over a same-sex marriage involving two of his campaign volunteers, Rep. Riggleman fell at odds with the district Republican Party leaders. Virginia has the most unique nomination system in the country. There is no standardized primary, and each set of congressional district party authorities can conduct a virtually autonomous process for choosing its partisan general election candidates.
The congressional district committees can nominate in a standard primary or through what they call a “firehouse primary,” where only a few voting places are established throughout the jurisdiction, or, in what often happens on the Republican side, a district convention. Usually the party leaders work with their incumbents to choose the system that will benefit the top officeholder in the region, but not in Riggleman’s case.
In fact, the 5th District Republican committee chose exactly what would be to Rep. Riggleman’s greatest detriment. Because of the COVID-19 situation, they were unable to host a typical district convention. Therefore, the committee adopted what they termed a “drive-in convention,” where the delegates would come from throughout the district to just one specific location, drive into a building parking lot, and cast their ballot.
The fix against Riggleman went so far as to hold the drive-in convention in the church parking lot of where his challenger, Campbell County Supervisor and Liberty University athletic official Bob Good, is a member. Campbell County is in the far western end of the district, near the city of Lynchburg, and is more closely aligned with the 6th District.
The location decision meant the vast majority of delegates, and everyone from Riggleman’s geographic strength, would have to drive several hours in order to simply deposit their ballot envelope. The 5th stretches all the way to the Washington, DC outer Virginia suburbs, but the main population anchor is in and around the city of Charlottesville.
Approximately 3,500 Republican delegates comprise the 5th District Republican Party, and 2,537 of them cast ballots on Saturday. Good toppled the Congressman with a 58-42 percent margin.
The Riggleman campaign people say they will now consider available options. This could mean some type of legal challenge, but the Virginia process has long been upheld. A potential opening, however, could center around Good failing to register his candidacy within the allotted time, thereby technically missing the filing deadline. The party leaders indicate missing the paperwork deadline is of little consequence since they now have Good’s declaration of candidacy in their possession.
Though the sprawling 5th district electorate is Republican in nature (Trump ’16: 53-42 percent; Romney ’12: 52-46 percent), the political climate associated with the congressional district has seen much upheaval since the 2008 election.
In that year, Democrat Tom Perriello upset then-Rep. Virgil Goode (R) with just a 727-vote margin. Two years later, Rep. Perriello — who consistently voted outside the district’s mainstream, probably because he felt he could not hold the seat — fell to Republican Robert Hurt, who would hold the seat for only three terms before retiring. Republican Tom Garrett then succeeded Hurt, but chose not to seek re-election when he revealed he was battling alcoholism. This led to Riggleman’s 53-47 percent victory over media personality Leslie Cockburn (D) in the 2018 election.
Ironically, Rep. Riggleman appeared to be in strong position for a general election victory this November. Now, focus will be drawn to the June 23rd Democratic primary. Here, four party candidates battle for a nomination that suddenly has much greater value.
In the race are former congressional aide R.D. Huffstetler who has already raised approximately $1 million for his campaign (just $72,000 of which is self-contributed), Rappahannock County Supervisor John Lesinski, physician Cameron Webb, and International Affairs Fellow Claire Russo. All have raised at least $300,000, so the Democratic race is a clear battle that will presumably produce a substantial candidate.
Riggleman is now the third incumbent House member to be denied re-nomination in this election cycle, joining Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Steve King (R-IA). There are now 44 open seats, 34 from the Republican column, nine from the majority Democratic side, and one from the Libertarian Party.
Of those, 24 are retiring from politics, 11 are running for, or were appointed to, another office, three have lost re-nomination, two kept self-term limit promises, two were victims of a late-decade adverse redistricting map, and two more resigned their seats after accepting plea bargains for offenses.