The backlash was immediate. Melvin Adams, the district committee chair, wrote a post on the district’s website about “inclusiveness,” emphasizing that the Republican Party is committed to recognizing marriage “as the union of one man and one woman.” One Republican group after another in the Fifth District voted to censure or condemn Riggleman: Cumberland County’s committee, then Rappahannock’s. “The sanctity of marriage does not need to be redefined because it has been defined for thousands of years as one man and one woman. That’s a standard that I don’t think you can change, because that’s the standard that I believe the God of creation established in the very first chapters of the Book of Genesis,” Travis Witt, a Bob Good supporter and pastor who serves on the Fifth District committee and the Republican Party of Virginia’s state central committee, told me. “I believe that the constituents within the Fifth District would be more than likely suggesting to Denver Riggleman that [he should go] in and attend the service, but not [be] out on the very front lines performing the service.”
Read: Gay and Mennonite
Jerry Falwell Jr., a vocal Trump supporter and heir to his father’s religious-right empire at Liberty University, mostly located in the Fifth District, endorsed Riggleman: Last fall, the congressman tweeted a letter from Falwell, in which he wrote that “excluding other conservatives over issues that have already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court does nothing but help the liberals gain more power.” The White House didn’t seem to care about Riggleman’s support for same-sex marriage, either: Trump endorsed the congressman, and Donald Trump Jr. recorded a robocall pitch on Riggleman’s behalf. When it comes to accepting same-sex marriage, “I think they think that’s the future,” Riggleman told me. “President Trump has had no issue with LGBTQ rights.”
By contrast, Falwell Jr.’s brother, Jonathan Falwell, who leads Thomas Road Baptist Church right outside of Liberty’s campus, endorsed Good. Although Good wrote on Facebook in 2016 that Trump was “about my 17th choice out of 17 or so running in the Republican primary field,” he eagerly supports the president now. But Good made social issues a central part of his campaign. “Homosexuality is a very complex subject that medical science has confirmed is psychological moreso than genetic,” supporters recently wrote in an article posted on Good’s campaign website. Riggleman showed “a lack of integrity when, after elected, he repeatedly acted against & betrayed the very Republican Party Platform he swore to uphold.”
Riggleman may have had an easier time securing his seat in a primary election; he pitched his campaign as one of broad, conservative coalition appeal. But the GOP’s Fifth District congressional candidate was instead chosen by the party’s most ardent activists. Virginia election law allows districts to hold nominating conventions rather than primaries. Out of the roughly 3,500 people pre-registered as delegates, some had to drive several hours to cast their ballot yesterday morning in the parking lot of Tree of Life Ministries in Lynchburg—Good’s home turf—remaining in their cars to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The whole process was set up to encourage participation from the people with the strongest views. “We have an old saying that liberals and conservatives have passion. Moderates have lives,” Tom Davis, a former congressman in Virginia’s Eleventh District, told me.