After a string of losses, Virginia Republicans wrestle with hard right’s influence

By: - June 23, 2020 12:02 am

Fifth Congressional District Republican Candidate Denver Riggleman campaigns at Richmond International Airport with Vice President Mike Pence in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, the only Republican victor in Virginia’s four competitive congressional races in 2018, was just ousted by conservative constituents upset he officiated a gay wedding. Riggleman claims he was railroaded, suggesting the party’s highly unusual drive-through convention may have been tainted by voting fraud.

State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has built a substantial social media following and remains the only declared Republican candidate for governor in 2021, recently said the party keeps losing because of “spineless eunuchs” within the GOP ranks. That came after she said Confederate statues represent “white history,” a sentiment her erstwhile colleagues in the Senate Republican Caucus condemned as “idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory.”

If any Virginia Republicans thought 2020 was going to be the year of the center-right rebrand many believe can break their losing streak, it’s off to a shaky start.

To some, Riggleman’s apparent loss is the latest example of the power conservative activists have successfully wielded in the state since the rise of the tea party movement in 2009. Yet after a decade that saw Virginia Republicans shut out of all statewide offices, give up three congressional seats and lose their majorities in the General Assembly, the more conservative wing’s influence hasn’t translated to general-election wins.

In an interview, Riggleman, a Nelson County distillery owner in his first term representing Virginia’s sprawling 5th District, said he didn’t see his situation as a clash between mainstream Republicanism and the far right. In his telling, it’s a story about corruption that arises from lax party rules allowing activists to sit on party committees while on the payroll of campaigns affected by decisions those committees make.

“I think what happened is they saw somebody that was very independent and really refused to kiss the ring of the activist class,” said Riggleman, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump and has consistently voted for Trump’s agenda. “And it made a lot of people angry.”

After casting doubt on the legitimacy of the June 13 convention’s results, Riggleman and his team are still weighing their next steps. A final decision likely won’t come until after July 7, when the State Board of Elections is set to decide whether the apparent winner, former Liberty University official Bob Good, will be allowed on the ballot after failing to file some campaign paperwork on time. The Good campaign did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.

Asked what steps he thinks the Virginia GOP should take in the meantime, Riggleman said “never allow another convention.”

“I would just hope that people would want to meet me on the open field of battle and not these closed conventions that are just littered with corruption,” Riggleman said. “Maybe at some point the Republican Party will learn their lesson and allow free and fair elections instead of this convention nonsense.”

In a statement, Republican Party of Virginia spokesman John March seemed to acknowledge a downside to conventions, while reiterating a common argument that they prevent non-Republicans from having a say in who Republicans should nominate.

“We want as many Republicans as possible to be able to participate in nominating contests, and conventions tend to drive people away instead of invite them in,” March said. “The convention vs. primary debate would be resolved if Virginia had voter registration by party and closed primaries.”

Riggleman isn’t the first Republican surprised to discover he’s not conservative enough for the people most likely to participate in nomination contests.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said he was once considered a solid conservative voice but now is seen as “squishy” or a “wimp” by people more interested in anti-government messages and social issues than discussions on how to improve schools, roads and health care.

“I think the struggle that’s going on in the Republican Party is that the party has to decide what it wants to be,” said Bolling, who once seemed poised to become the GOP nominee to succeed former Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s last Republican governor. “If it wants to be a party that merely engages in the great ideological debates of the day, it can do that. But it will continue losing elections. If it wants to be a party that actually wins elections in a changing Virginia, it’s got to take a different course.”

The anti-establishment impulse in Virginia’s conservative voters predated Trump’s takeover of the GOP.

Bolling dropped his gubernatorial ambitions for the 2013 race after being pushed aside by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who won the nomination at a party-run convention that also saw hard-right pastor E.W. Jackson defeat Northern Virginia businessman Pete Snyder (now being discussed as a moderate option for governor in 2021) to become the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor.

The trend continued when former U.S. Rep. Dave Brat unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning 2014 primary. 

It seemed to culminate with the rise of former Prince William County Chairman Corey Stewart, who came surprisingly close to upsetting mainstream Republican Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial primary. After that near miss, Stewart sat atop the GOP ticket in 2018 as the party’s U.S. Senate nominee after building his reputation on fiery opposition to illegal immigration and open nostalgia for the Confederacy.

Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart. (Katrina Tilbury/Capital News Service)
2018 Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart. (Katrina Tilbury/Capital News Service)

Cuccinelli lost the 2013 race to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

Two years ago, Brat lost his Republican-leaning congressional district to U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico. He’s since taken a job at Liberty University.

Gillespie lost in 2017 to current Gov. Ralph Northam by nearly nine points, a crushing defeat the Gillespie campaign attributed largely to a voter backlash against the Trump White House.

Stewart, one of the first Virginia political figures to go all in on Trump-style populism, was routed by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and receded from state politics. 

The fact that a center-right Republican like Gillespie and a Trump acolyte like Stewart both went down to defeat, Bolling said, shows Republicans have more fundamental problems in a fast-changing state, a dynamic that’s partly outside Republicans’ ability to control.

That change has been on dramatic display since Republicans lost their statehouse majorities, enabling newly empowered Democrats to pass reams of legislation turning the state in a sharply different direction on issues like gun control, abortion access, voting, LGBTQ protections, the minimum wage and climate change.

Meanwhile, the suburban county Stewart used to lead is ending its controversial agreement with federal officials that allowed local sheriff’s deputies to enforce immigration law, a decision hailed as a major victory by immigrant rights’ advocates.

Some see echoes of Stewart’s strategy in Chase’s depiction of Confederate monuments as objects that have particular meaning for White people as well as a recent Facebook post in which she suggested Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, could not effectively govern the whole state due to her membership in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

“We are allowing the very worst voices in the party to define the whole,” said Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia who recently called for the state party to disown Chase. “It’s been a 15-year, 20-year slide. Why should good people get off the couch and support the party of free enterprise when even we don’t believe in that anymore. You’ve got these fanatics on one side who are talking about a Virginia that, quite frankly, never existed.”

In an interview, Chase, who first got involved in state politics during the tea party’s heyday, said she’s trying to speak for the “regular everyday people” that the “Republican elite” has lost touch with.

“They want you to double down, not back down,” said Chase, who defeated a Republican incumbent when she won her state Senate seat in 2015 and was re-elected by a comfortable margin last year. “That’s why I’ve been successful.”

When asked about her comments regarding McClellan, a statement the Democratic Party of Virginia called racist, Chase doubled down.

“We should be more inclusive. I think having a Black Caucus is divisive. To me, it says you’re only going to represent one group of people,” Chase said, adding that she has worked to help several Black candidates and was recently endorsed by Chuck Smith, a Black conservative who has said he’s running for attorney general.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Chase, who was removed from the Senate Republican Caucus last year after clashing with GOP leaders, said it would be “misguided and foolish” for the party to try to thwart her path to the 2021 nomination. Republican voters, she said, are not looking for candidates who preach compromise or consultant-driven campaigns that are about moderating the message.

“What I would love to see is for the Republican party to unify behind a strong woman like myself who is an independent voice,” Chase said. “I would hope they would get behind me and support me instead of throwing rocks at me.”

Before figuring out 2021, Republicans have 2020 to deal with.

In today’s primaries, the party will choose its nominee to take on U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is expected to be a strong favorite to win reelection this fall. The three GOP candidates in the running are retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Gade, Army reservist Tom Speciale and Nottoway County teacher Alissa Baldwin, all of whom have minimal experience in elective politics.

Primary voters will also be choosing a congressional nominee to run in the Virginia Beach-anchored 2nd District, where former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor is considered a favorite and would get a rematch against U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, who beat him in 2018.

The nomination in the 7th District, where Republicans feel they have a shot at retaking the seat held by Spanberger, will be decided at a convention next month. Paperwork issues have also emerged in that contest after the campaign of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, failed to file a candidacy form on time, repeating a similar mistake made in his reelection bid last year that forced him to run as a write-in candidate.

The main action on the Democratic side Tuesday will be the primary contest in the 5th District, which analysts say could be more competitive after Riggleman’s apparent loss to Good. Four Democrats — R.D. Huffstetler, Cameron Webb, Claire Russo and John Lesinski — are competing for the 5th District nomination.

In a statement, March, the RPV spokesman, said the state GOP is “stronger than ever.”

“[Virginia] is a target state for President Trump, the Democrat leadership is embroiled in scandal (not just blackface and rape allegations anymore), and we’ve got three incredible Senate candidates running against a guy who won by the skin of his teeth in 2014,” March said, referring to criticism of the Northam administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Warner’s narrow victory over Gillespie in 2014.

Others aren’t so sure.

In a time of massive upheaval due to the COVID-19 crisis and civil unrest over racial issues and police brutality, said former Richmond-area Republican Del. Chris Peace, the party is struggling to find a big-tent message and build coalitions beyond its core voters.

“People are kind of tuning them out,” said Peace, who lost his General Assembly seat last year after angering constituents by voting for Medicaid expansion. “It’s a pretty bleak picture I think.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.