BUCKINGHAM, Va. — The late-summer sun was just beginning to cast shadows on the white pillars of the Buckingham County courthouse, near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, when House hopeful Bob Good stood before a crowd of supporters last week and promised to “not stand idly by” against the threat of urban rioters.
“We can’t say it couldn’t happen here,” the Virginia Republican said. “It can happen here. But we won’t let it happen here.”
The talking point is one of several that Good, 55, a self-described “bright-red biblical conservative” has borrowed from the campaign of President Donald Trump as he vies to represent Virginia’s sprawling 5th District and bring “Judeo-Christian values” to Washington.
He promises to help Trump complete his border wall and hold China accountable for the coronavirus pandemic. He has also painted his Democratic opponent, physician and lawyer Cameron Webb, as aligned with the “radical left” for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And in recent weeks, Good has campaigned on opposition to a state measure meant to protect transgender rights.
That rhetoric has found an appreciative audience among party stalwarts in the district, some of whom helped Good, a former athletics director at the evangelical Liberty University and onetime member of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors, oust the more libertarian-leaning freshman Republican Denver Riggleman at a June nominating convention.
But critics — including some Republicans — say Good started off with a weak base of support and has done little to reach out to moderates and independents who could cast deciding votes in November.
Virginia’s 5th District, which stretches from the Washington exurbs to the North Carolina border, voted for Trump by 11 points in 2016. But Webb, 37, has a 5-to-1 fundraising advantage, and Democrats see him as a rising star. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.
“Nobody minds that he is conservative, it’s that he is on the fringe of the conservative,” said Matt Hall, who doesn’t live in the district but writes an influential political blog on the right-leaning Bearing Drift website. “He is so far to the right that people are starting to get a little creeped out by it.”
The intraparty strife is rare among Republicans so far in 2020, which has seen a series of primaries that bestowed the nomination to the candidate who displayed the strongest loyalty to the president.
But it provides a glimpse into internal debates starting to surface within the GOP in purpling states like Virginia as Trump’s declining polling numbers and Democratic House and Senate candidates’ strong fundraising advantages have increased the number of races in play.
Good spent the weeks before the state starts early voting on Sept. 18 traveling across the district, highlighting his support for law enforcement officials.
In Buckingham County, he arrived in a bus emblazoned with a Trump/Pence logo. It belonged to a supporter, according to the Good campaign.
At the lectern, he said that as a member of Congress, he would advocate the automatic death penalty for anyone who kills a law enforcement officer. The president made the same promise in 2015 but hasn’t followed through — in part because of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that mandatory death sentences are unconstitutional, according to PolitiFact.
Good said his opponent “wants to defund law enforcement.” Webb said he doesn’t. Webb, whose father was a law enforcement official who trained officers at the Drug Enforcement Administration, calls for redirecting federal funding from “the militarization” of police departments to community policing and better training for officers.
“He’s spending time spreading a sensationalized or radical version of me,” Webb said of the GOP nominee. “That’s unfortunate. It makes it harder for voters to sift through the disinformation. But that’s my job.”
Neither Good nor anyone in the audience of about 25 supporters at the outdoor event wore masks or observed social distancing recommendations — providing an unspoken contrast to Webb, who has been treating COVID-19 patients at the University of Virginia Health System throughout the pandemic and has been careful to follow public health guidelines at his limited in-person events.
‘Built on God’
Theresa McManus wore a silver Q pin on her hat — a reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges a “deep-state” plot against Trump — and waved a large American flag on the courthouse lawn as Good spoke. It was the third of his rallies she had attended that day, she said.
“I like what he stands for,” McManus said, adding that she sees many of the issues at stake in the election as “good versus evil” and it was clear what side Good is on. “To me, our Constitution, we were built on God,” she said.
Tensions within the GOP in the 5th District go back to 2018, when Republican Rep. Tom Garrett announced he was an alcoholic and would not seek reelection, forcing the district party to hold an emergency nominating convention.
Riggleman, the owner of a whisky distillery who had garnered a reputation as a maverick during a brief run for governor the previous year, won the GOP nod by only one vote, beating religious conservative Cynthia Dunbar. He went on to win the general election by less than 7 points, withstanding the blue wave that saw Democrats flip three other House seats in Virginia.
But he never fully won over Dunbar’s supporters in the district, who were angered by his efforts to work with Democrats on climate change, his support for certain exceptions to abortion restrictions, and his decision to officiate a gay wedding last summer. Several Good supporters at the rally last week cited that wedding as the event that changed their minds on Riggleman.
“It’s not that I’m against gays, necessarily, but I’m against forcing me and others to say, ‘Yes, it’s OK,’ when we don’t believe it’s OK,” said Morgan Dunnavant, a former Buckingham County supervisor.
Good says he was recruited to challenge Riggleman by party leaders who felt the district deserved a more stalwart conservative representative. He won the nomination with just over 1,500 votes in a district with over 500,000 registered voters.
Good says he has broadened his base since then with personal appearances throughout the district.
“As we move across the district, we’re finding unity,” he told CQ Roll Call. “Unity for President Trump, unity for Republican principles and an overwhelming support for us.”
Good also has the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has contributed to a six-figure fall ad reservation in the Roanoke region, campaign spokesman Josh Rosene said.
The NRCC on Monday added him to the top tier of its Young Guns program for strong candidates.
Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the investment from the NRCC is a sign that national Republicans are worried about the race, but as long as Trump carries the district by a substantial margin, Good will likely come out ahead.
“The danger for Good is that the district is closer at the presidential level and he underperforms,” Kondik said.
A poll conducted for Webb’s campaign at the beginning of August showed Trump leading Joe Biden 47 percent to 45 percent, within the margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. Good was up 44 percent to 42 percent over Webb, with 13 percent of voters undecided.
Good’s critics say he has alienated more people than he has won over. Democrats called his first ad, which aired in early September, a “racist dog whistle.” It juxtaposed pictures of Webb, who is Black, against pictures of fiery urban scenes and urged voters to look past Webb’s “slick presentation.”
Good said the ad was a “race neutral” presentation of Webb’s views on law enforcement, health care and tax policy. He also pointed to endorsements from Carol Swain, who serves on the Black Voices for Trump advisory board, and from the Frederick Douglass Foundation as signs of his support among the Black community.
Riggleman, the incumbent, said it was a bad move to open with an attack ad.
“The voters of the 5th still have no idea what Bob is running on,” he told CQ Roll Call.
Webb, meanwhile, has already rolled out a series of ads introducing himself as a moderate with deep roots in the district — where both he and his wife grew up and his father-in-law was a pastor. He takes pains to highlight his experience working across the aisle — including working for the Trump administration as a White House fellow.
“We have very progressive folks in this district, and we have very conservative voters. I approach every one of them the same,” he said.
The day after Good’s Buckingham County rally, Webb introduced a new ad. It touted his endorsements from law enforcement officials, including two former county sheriffs.