On Saturday, freshman GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman was defeated for renomination at a drive-through convention by former Liberty University athletics official Bob Good, 42 percent to 58 percent. Southside Virginia's 5th CD has a healthy Republican lean — it voted for President Trump 53 percent to 42 percent in 2016 — but the latest GOP rift could create an unusual opportunity for Democrats.
Good, who calls himself a "biblical conservative," raised $186,000 to Riggleman's $1.5 million but lambasted the libertarian-minded incumbent for officiating a 2019 same-sex wedding between two former campaign volunteers and for supporting decriminalization of marijuana possession. That proved enough to overcome President Trump and Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s endorsements of Riggleman.
It also helped Good that 5th CD GOP leaders opted to hold the convention at Tree of Life Ministries in Campbell County, where Good had been elected county supervisor. Riggleman had decried the unusual process from the start, favoring a primary. He's alleged irregularities and "ballot box stuffing" in the vote of 2,357 local GOP officials and says he's evaluating legal options, but it's unclear what recourse he has.
In truth, Riggleman never had a solid grip on his own party back home. Ironically, the distillery owner, former Air Force intelligence officer and Bigfoot hobbyist was nominated by far fewer voters in June 2018, when 37 GOP officials narrowly picked him on the fourth ballot after the incumbent, GOP Rep. Tom Garrett, withdrew from his own bid for a second term citing a struggle with alcoholism.
Already, there are questions about Good's readiness for a general election. At the end of May, he had a paltry $34,000 in cash on hand. And he failed to submit a form for his name to appear on the November ballot by last week's deadline, although close observers believe the state board of elections will grant an extension because COVID-19 has already pushed back so much of the election timetable.
But Good's biggest vulnerability may be Democrats' potential to make the election a referendum on Good's social issue stances. Good not only opposes abortion under all circumstances including rape and incest, but made his opposition to same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his convention campaign at a time when even many GOP and conservative voters have moved on to other fights.
Democrats are headed for a June 23 primary between three strong contenders, all of whom are based in the Charlottesville area: Marine veteran Claire Russo, Marine veteran R.D. Huffstetler and UVA physician Cameron Webb.
Russo, who grew up in northern Virginia and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be the frontrunner. She began her first TV ad, “It was 2004. I was attending the Marine Corps Ball when I was drugged and raped by a superior," citing being denied justice as a reason for running. She's raised $588,000 with the help of EMILY's List and should benefit as the only woman against three men on the ballot.
Huffstetler, who grew up in rural Georgia and founded a cloud data analysis startup called Zillabyte after graduating from Harvard Business School, has raised the most, $971,000. He ran here in 2018 and fell short at the convention against a more liberal candidate, but believes this year's primary format will give him a better chance and that his drawl makes him a better potential general election fit.
But at a time of crisis when primary voters are looking to elevate voices of African-Americans and healthcare providers, Webb is uniquely well-suited for the moment. Webb ($721,000 raised) is a former Obama White House health policy fellow running to be the first black doctor to vote in Congress. He's also married to an ER doctor who grew up in the rural Southside section of the 5th CD.
There is precedent for Democrats pulling off a huge 5th CD upset: in 2008, Tom Perriello ousted GOP Rep. Virgil Goode by 727 votes after Goode became obsessed with the illegal immigration issue and eschewed modern campaign tactics. But Perriello wouldn't have won had it not been for Barack Obama's bid supercharging both black turnout in Southside and college turnout in Charlottesville.
It's possible Good could run another anachronistic race and 2020 could turn out to be another Democratic wave year. But the district is also a point more GOP-friendly than it was in 2008 (2011 redistricting added some of rural Fauquier County), and the district's politics are even more polarized between activist-dominated Charlottesville and rural Southside than they used to be, limiting its partisan "elasticity."
Another wild card: Riggleman, who is clearly disgruntled, could seek to mount an independent bid. But to do so, he would have to circumvent Virginia's "sore loser" law by arguing its text only applies to primaries (not conventions) and hope that the state's board of elections decides to extend the candidate filing deadline from June 9 (the original primary date) to June 23.
Ultimately, it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for a Democrat to prevail here in November. Even in 2018, anti-immigration hardliner Corey Stewart carried the 5th CD by two points against Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine while losing by 16 points statewide. But Good makes the GOP's path more complicated than it should be. The race moves from Likely to Lean Republican.