Editor’s note: Whether Democrats can retake the House of Representatives is the big storyline of this fall’s midterm election cycle. Four competitive Virginia House races for seats currently held by Republicans, profiled this week in a series in the Mercury, could play a key role come Election Day.
In the aftermath of last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the candidates vying to win the congressional seat representing the city are trying to tar each other with white supremacy associations. And that’s before we get to the Bigfoot erotica.
Democrat Leslie Cockburn, a former journalist and current farmer, is facing off against Republican Denver Riggleman, who briefly ran for governor last year but got more attention this year for being a Bigfoot fan.
Both candidates, and their respective parties, have lobbed attacks accusing the other of being associated with white supremacists.
“The parties are making it an issue,” said Geoff Skelley, political analyst with the UVA Center for Politics. “I don’t know how much voters would actually focus in on the issue of white supremacy.”
The Republican Party of Virginia went on the defensive early in the campaign and called Cockburn anti-Semitic for a 1992 book she co-authored with her husband that critiqued U.S. relations with Israel.
“It was an opportunity for them to try to muddle this subject,” Skelley said. “Unfortunately for Republicans — because of the president’s wishy-washy statements — it puts them on the defensive for this.”
The Republican Party of Virginia recently sent out a mailer trying to link Cockburn’s book and the Unite the Right rally. And the party has also pointed out the book was quoted on neo-Nazi and white nationalist websites — including a site that supported the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last summer.
Virginia’s 5th Congressional District stretches from Northern Virginia down to the state’s southern border.
In the course of her campaign, Cockburn has been endorsed by several Jewish community leaders and J-Street, a Jewish PAC.
“We have real anti-Semitism here and it comes from the alt-right and the white supremacists,” Cockburn said. “Believe me, they don’t sit around and read important works of journalism. This is not their reading material.”
She said she’s concerned about her opponent’s hesitance to condemn racists, white nationalists and bigots.
In July, Cockburn took up her own white supremacy attack line, with a unique twist, accusing Riggleman of being a fan of “Bigfoot erotica” after finding some social media posts related to a book Riggleman authored. She also linked him to white supremacists in the same tweet.
The claim stemmed from news footage that showed Isaac Smith, an associate of Jason Kessler, who planned the deadly Unite the Right rally, at a Riggleman event. Smith told The Washington Post he walked away from Kessler and the alt-right before the rally and has no role in Riggleman’s campaign.
“For someone to make up the Bigfoot erotica claim and then conflate it with the white supremacy issue suggests a couple things,” Riggleman said. “She fabricates everything and she has no respect for real issues.”
A week before protestors gathered in Charlottesville to mark one year since the Unite the Right rally, a letter from Riggleman was published in The Roanoke Times condemning white supremacists.
“If you think that the color of your skin or the religion you practice makes you ‘superior’ to anyone else in this country, I’m just not your guy,” he wrote.
It’s unlikely Bigfoot or Israel will change the outcome of the election, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Cockburn is up against a district that is solidly Republican, despite a few urban pockets of Democratic voters.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the district with 53 percent of the vote, 11 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton.
“The real question here is are the fundamentals of the district simply too much for the blue wave to overcome?” Kidd said. “The demographics of the district aren’t in Cockburn’s favor.”
Riggleman, an Air Force veteran who now owns a company that works on government contracts, has a strong Libertarian streak. His wife and daughter also own Silverback Distillery in Afton, which will expand to Pennsylvania soon. Although Riggleman is often at the distillery, it’s not his business.
Cockburn was a television journalist for 35 years, working on documentaries on topics like the CIA’s involvement with Central American drug traffickers and the U.S. support of an anti-Communist group in Cambodia.
She won awards for her work and published books. Her time as a journalist kept her in the political orbit for decades, she said.
“I’ve had more exposure to politics than most politicians,” she said. “I came to know (Capitol Hill) very well.”
Her top priority is health care and its far-reaching effects in the district: Charlottesville only has one insurer available to residents through the Affordable Care Act, ineffective drug rehabilitation centers are siphoning federal funds away from programs that work and the federal government has ceded too much power to drug companies that makes medication unaffordable, she says.
It’s also difficult to establish health care centers, which means people across the district have fewer places to seek care, Cockburn said.
Riggleman sees agricultural issues in the district the same way Cockburn sees health care: problems that need to be addressed to fix the economy that sustains much of the district.
“They’re dealing with the triple whammy of lack of labor, over-regulation and taxation,” Riggleman said of farmers.
The current “tedious, over-regulated and expensive” immigration process limits farmers’ access to legal, temporary workers, Riggleman said. He wants to quickly pass the new proposed H-2C program, which provides more flexibility for farmers who hire temporary workers from outside the U.S.
Riggleman said he wants to make federal tax reform permanent, a common platform plank for Republicans since the changes were passed last year.
“The American Dream is based on people pulling themselves up,” Riggleman said. “But if the government keeps over-taxing…it’s going to keep people in the position they’re in.”