Denver Riggleman, who has an ax to grind with fellow Republicans, has a good idea how to win a vast, rural congressional district that was drawn for the GOP but might not be as red as it used to be.
Riggleman was denied renomination in Virginia’s 5th District in a hard-right revolt, losing to Bob Good — a Scripture-quoting culture warrior — after a single term because he tempers his conservatism with libertarianism: Riggleman officiated in 2019 at the wedding of gay campaign volunteers.
The Riggleman-Good fight laid bare fissures within the GOP, perhaps creating an opportunity for Democrats in a district Donald Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016 but that could be a toss-up — if you believe internal Democratic polling leaked this past month to get the attention of the party’s donor class.
It’s not just Republican-on-Republican cannibalism that could help Good’s opponent, Cameron Webb. There’s an early 5-to-1 fundraising advantage for Webb that’s likely to diminish with big checks for Good from national Republicans. There are issues eroding Republican enthusiasm, including the COVID-19-wracked economy.
And there is the call of history.
Webb is a Black candidate running on a Democratic ticket with Kamala Harris, the first woman of color nominated for the vice presidency. These could be powerfully appealing in a district that, because of record Black turnout in 2008, dumped a conservative white Republican, Virgil Goode, for a liberal white Democrat, Tom Perriello, who cleaved himself to Barack Obama, who would become the nation’s first Black president.
“This district is not hard, all-in for Donald Trump, not hard, all-in for Joe Biden — it’s a purple district,” Webb said via Zoom. The GOP disagrees. The National Republican Congressional Committee in a snapshot of the campaign in July said Webb has “absolutely zero chance of winning.”
Riggleman is watching Good’s contest with Webb — a doctor-lawyer who teaches at the University of Virginia — from his home in mountainous Nelson County. Riggleman does not like what he sees.
Riggleman, who refused to endorse Good, is alarmed by Good’s introductory television commercial — one that links Webb to everything that should terrify Republicans in the Trump era: a government takeover of health care, post-George Floyd unrest and cutting police budgets.
Webb is punching back, running a commercial that includes sheriffs and prosecutors speaking on his behalf. Webb, the son of a DEA man, says Good, as a supervisor in Campbell County, backed a budget in 2016 that reduced spending on public safety.
The Good spot includes what Democrats and some Republicans interpret as an unsubtle appeal to race, imploring voters —in a district with a long history of white-Black tensions — to look past Webb’s “smooth presentation.” The Good campaign says there’s nothing to it.
Riggleman isn’t sure, viewing it as a sign of trouble for Good: “There’s a real chance if Bob Good can’t raise money, can’t get his message out and goes negative — and his first ad is negative — that Cameron Webb can win based on his message ... It’s one of unity, that’s moderate, down the middle.”
A Webb victory would be an unexpected bonus for Democrats, who are defending two seats in Trump-won districts in the Richmond area and Hampton Roads. Wins in all three could be locked down for Democrats for a decade in 2021 redistricting.
The 5th District is where the “Civil War ended and civil rights began,” in the words of Longwood University president Taylor Reveley IV. Longwood, in Farmville, is among several campuses in the district, where Webb hopes to capture youthful enthusiasm for Democrats, in general, and distaste for Trump, in particular.
This is in full flower in Charlottesville, home of UVA and the flashpoint in 2017 for a deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in which Trump — while criticizing both sides — seemingly aligned with the former, validating their romance with the Confederacy and appeals to anti-Semitism.
Spanning from the outermost suburbs of Washington to the farm-flecked border with North Carolina, the 5th District includes Appomattox County, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, and Prince Edward County, where the white oligarchy closed public schools for five years rather than cave to court-ordered desegregation.
It is a district that was the seat of such traditional industries as textiles, tobacco, shoes and furniture — all largely killed off by trade agreements and government crackdowns, stranding thousands of low-skill, low-paid workers.
The 5th District, which until Perriello's one-term win in 2008 had not sent a Democrat to Congress since 1998, struggles to pivot to technology, a challenge exacerbated by a pandemic that forces children to study from home, never mind that nearly 1 in 3 farms lack broadband, said Webb, citing figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s clear Webb would rather talk issues than trash the individual who looms over the race: Donald Trump. That’s because Webb can’t risk scaring voters who might reconsider their support of the president. But that’s exactly what Republicans want to do with Webb.
Editor's Note: This column has been updated to clarify the last time the 5th District sent a Democrat to Congress.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or email@example.com. Listen to his podcast, Capitol Chat, on Richmond.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 8:45 a.m. Friday on VPM News, 88.9 FM.