LOVINGSTON — Virginia distillery owner Denver Riggleman on Saturday won the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-5th, on the ballot in November, capping a chaotic week after Garrett abruptly announced he’ll step down and seek treatment for alcoholism.
Riggleman, who ran a libertarian-flavored campaign for governor last year but dropped out before the GOP primary, may have saved the Republican establishment’s hopes of holding the 5th District, which runs through the middle of the state from the Northern Virginia exurbs to the North Carolina border.
Cynthia Dunbar, a former Liberty University law professor and hard-right conservative fresh off a losing campaign in the neighboring 6th District, made a surprise appearance at Saturday’s special district committee meeting at Nelson County High School, where 37 GOP activists gathered to pick a major-party nominee for a district that is larger than New Jersey.
Dunbar had not publicly declared herself a candidate and does not live in the district, but she won the most votes in the first three rounds of secret balloting.
It was Riggleman who finished on top, winning on the fourth ballot after his supporters urged the committee members to back the candidate with the best chance to win, not the one who makes them feel good.
Several voting committee members disclosed that they or their spouse had worked for Dunbar’s prior congressional campaign. District chairman Melvin Adams Sr. said those ties didn’t pose a conflict that would prevent them from voting.
‘A liberty Republican’
Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer and defense contractor who owns Silverback Distillery in Afton, described himself as a “liberty Republican.”
“There’s three things I believe in,” Riggleman told reporters after the meeting. “It’s free markets. It’s free agency. And it’s the freedom to keep your own money.”
Riggleman will take on Democrat Leslie Cockburn, a former journalist, in the general election.
Democrats’ hopes of flipping the seat seemed to brighten Monday, when Garrett announced that he would not seek re-election, sending Republicans scrambling for a new candidate late in the campaign cycle. Garrett and his wife, Flanna, are under scrutiny for allegedly forcing congressional staffers to run personal errands for the congressman and his family.
With less than a week to prepare, Republicans went into Saturday’s meeting under a cloud of uncertainty, with rumors swirling that Dunbar was stealthily planning a coup.
The first surprise of the day came when state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who was considered the likely front-runner, bowed out at the last minute. Stanley told reporters he didn’t want to put his family through a congressional campaign. Instead, he said, he’ll stay in the Senate and consider running for governor or attorney general in 2021.
Several combative rounds of debate unfolded between ballots, with younger, more moderate Riggleman supporters talking up his broad appeal to the electorate and Dunbar supporters praising her devotion to Christian principles and the Constitution.
Riggleman supporter Elliot Harding said that if the party ignores the wishes of its younger members, it does so at its own peril.
“Who do you think knocks on the doors?” Harding said. “Who do you think makes the phone calls?”
Republican officials did not release the final ballot numbers, but it probably came down to one or two votes. On the third ballot, Dunbar had 16 votes to Riggleman’s 15.
Charlottesville GOP activist Michael del Rosso finished third, which meant his supporters made all the difference in round four.
The contentiousness spilled over into Riggleman’s victory speech, when a man in the audience began shouting about “backroom deals.”
“I don’t make deals. Ever,” Riggleman said. “What I make a deal for is liberty and the beauty of the Republican Party.”
The man who was shouting, David Valcich, said later that he had seen Riggleman huddling with del Rosso in the hall. To back up his claim, he showed a reporter a photo he had taken of Riggleman and del Rosso talking outside the auditorium.
Asked if he’ll back Riggleman as the nominee, Valcich, who works as the Christian coalitions director for Republican Corey Stewart’s campaign for U.S. Senate, seemed unsure.
“My allegiance is to the King of kings. So I’ll pray about it,” Valcich said.
Anticipating an Election Day backlash against President Donald Trump, Democrats are hoping to pull off an upset in the traditionally Republican district. They were elated Saturday when it appeared Dunbar would win, but now they have to prepare for a different kind of candidate.
“House Freedom Caucus hopeful Denver Riggleman compromised and cut enough deals to win at the congressional nomination of a deeply damaged, divided and chaotic Republican Party,” said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Jake Rubenstein.
Riggleman has said he intends to join the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative group Garrett joined after he was elected to Congress in 2016.
Before his sudden emergence as a congressional nominee, Riggleman lobbied to reduce state liquor regulations and vocally opposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a Dominion Energy-backed project that affected his property in Nelson. He also has said he supports decriminalizing marijuana but wants to hear more before supporting full-blown legalization.
Several Dunbar supporters made speeches suggesting Riggleman is out of step with family-values conservatives on same-sex marriage and abortion.
One pro-Dunbar speaker touted Dunbar’s support for then-Del. Bob Marshall’s failed transgender bathroom bill. Marshall lost his seat last year to Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, a journalist who became the first openly transgender person to serve in the General Assembly.
Asked to explain his views on social issues, Riggleman described himself as pro-life but said he supports exceptions when the life of the mother is at risk and in cases of rape and incest. He said he takes a states’ rights approach to gay marriage.
“It’s even in our Republican creed that you get to pick who you are, when you are and how you are,” Riggleman said. “But there is no way on earth I’m going to tell anybody how to be from the federal level.”
Riggleman said Trump’s tax cuts have saved him a lot of money, but he didn’t offer lavish praise for the president.
“I’m pretty much an independent guy,” Riggleman said. “I agree with policy, not people. That’s how I’m wired.”
Four other candidates — del Rosso, John Whited, Martha Boneta and Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier — also had sought the nomination.
Dunbar, who represents Virginia on the Republican National Committee, lost the 6th District nomination to Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, at a May 19 convention in Harrisonburg.
As she stepped out of the school Saturday into a light drizzle, Dunbar didn’t seem disheartened by her second loss in a matter of weeks. She promised to “keep fighting for our nation.”
“I never get discouraged because we live in the greatest country,” Dunbar said. “And the whole process is part of the beauty of it.”