The novel coronavirus is posing a new threat to the already endangered Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Republican facing an insurgency within his own party in a Virginia district targeted by Democrats.
With prohibitions on mass gatherings likely to extend into the spring, leaders of the district GOP are considering alternatives to an April 25 convention where the 2020 nominee is supposed to be chosen.
Riggleman and his supporters say the contingency plans could limit voter participation and favor his challenger, former Liberty University athletics director Bob Good.
Riggleman is a libertarian-leaning conservative whose laissez-faire attitude toward social issues such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization are often at odds with the religious fundamentalism popular among some of the district’s Republican leaders, who have made no secret of their support for Good.
Each camp has accused the other of using the virus to hijack the nomination. And some are worried that the melee could result in a failure to name any Republican candidate in 2020.
The crisis is exposing fault lines in the nomination process in the state, where political parties can choose between state-run primaries open to any registered voter and more insular, party-run procedures to pick nominees.
“We have a convoluted convention process that is collapsing under the weight of this crisis,” said Riggleman, who had advocated a primary. That would have given him a better shot in the sprawling 5th District, which spreads from the Washington, D.C., exurbs to the rural North Carolina border.
“I don’t think we would be in this position if the chairman hadn’t pushed for a method that disenfranchised so many voters in the 5th District,” he said. “If we were having a primary, we would not be having this discussion.”
A clear choice
But Good said any complaints now are motivated by fear among Riggleman and his supporters that they would lose at a convention, which is open to delegates elected by local GOP committees.
“It is clear that Republican voters within the 5th District want to choose a bright-red conservative over a purple, progressive Republican,” Good said.
The 5th District is one of several in Virginia where Republicans decided to hold conventions rather than primaries, including the suburban 7th District that Democrat Abigail Spanberger flipped in 2018.
Ben Slone, the GOP’s 7th District chairman, said the committee there would hold a conference call Thursday to discuss options.
“We have a set of contingency plans that will be invoked depending on guidance and government health dictates,” he said in an email.
In the 5th District, party leaders are pressing ahead with plans to reschedule the convention, which they had planned to hold at Good’s church, The Tree of Life.
The committee has scheduled a conference call next week to discuss changing the date. Melvin Adams, the committee chairman, told CQ Roll Call he intends to move it to June 6, the last Saturday before the party deadline of June 9 to select a nominee.
If restrictions on mass gatherings are still in place by then, Riggleman and several of his supporters told CQ Roll Call that Adams has been quietly advocating another option — holding a closed meeting at which only the members of the 5th District Republican Committee would be able to cast their vote.
That could shrink the number of eligible voters from about 3,000 registered delegates to less than 40 committee members, a potential political death sentence for Riggleman, who was censured by one county committee — the district includes all or part of 21 counties and two cities — last summer after he officiated a gay wedding. The larger district committee debated censuring him at the time as well. And the National Journal reported last month that at least four district committee members had donated to Good’s campaign.
“It would be an incredibly disappointing end to a contentious campaign if the district committee were the ones to make that call,” said a committee member aligned with Riggleman, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think it would be unfair. It’s a very undemocratic process.”
Riggleman and his supporters also point out that a closed committee meeting raises the possibility that no one would secure the nomination, because party rules would require the winner to secure two-thirds of the vote instead of a simple majority.
Even if a nominee clears that hurdle, they say, there is a chance the state party would not recognize the winner, again leaving the district without a Republican nominee on the ballot in November.
Adams said it would be premature to discuss contingency plans but did not deny that a meeting restricted to committee members was one of the options.
“I know the congressman and some of his staff and other people have been putting out false information, or at least implying this committee is trying to rig things. This committee is not trying to rig things. … The bottom line is this: We want to make sure our delegates have their voices heard, so we are doing everything within our power to make sure that happens,” Adams said.
Adams and Good both pointed out that it would not be unprecedented to hold a closed meeting to name a nominee — indeed, that is how Riggleman got picked last cycle. He came from nowhere to win the party’s 2018 nomination by a handful of votes at an emergency meeting of committee members after freshman Rep. Tom Garrett announced in May of that year that he was an alcoholic and would not seek reelection.
“I did not hear any complaints from those friendly with Denver Riggleman when they prevailed by one vote two years ago and he became the nominee,” Good said. “Now here we are two years later, and it sounds like there is an assumption on the part of some that he may not fare well among the district committee now that they have known him for two years”
But a former state party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that is a faulty comparison. Party rules allow closed committee meetings only if a district’s already selected nominee drops out or is otherwise disqualified, he said.
“If there were a process to pick a nominee without having Republican voters elect the nominee, that would be totally unprecedented in the history of the party,” he said. “Changing to a process where Republican voters don’t have a voice would be against the party plan and potentially against state law.”