Denver Riggleman Has Seen the Future of the Republican Party

Republicans used to think they’d succeed through moderation and inclusion. That’s over.

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Getty / The Atlantic

Updated 11:56 a.m. on January 3, 2020.

Denver Riggleman had a rough December. For one thing, he’s about to lose his job: Over the summer, members of the Virginia GOP voted to kick the freshman Republican out of Congress, largely because he publicly officiated a same-sex wedding. Riggleman’s cousin died of COVID-19 the week before Christmas, and his grandmother had to be hospitalized with the virus. Now, as his family gets sick all around him, Riggleman is about to be replaced in Congress by a coronavirus skeptic. “We have got to stop the insanity, and stop accepting the hoax that says forcing people to wear a mask, forcing businesses to close, prohibiting worship services, and keeping kids out of school will make a significant difference in whether or not we will die from this virus,” tweeted Bob Good, the representative-elect from Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, on the same day the U.S. death toll passed 291,000.

A few years ago, Republicans might have seen a guy like Riggleman as their future. He’s a small-business owner from the rural part of a purple-blue state who cares a lot about national security and keeping taxes low, and not much about policing people’s personal lives. In the infamous 2013 GOP autopsy report diagnosing why Republicans kept losing the popular vote and popular support, party leaders wrote that “young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out” if the GOP does not become more inclusive. The culture wars were over, the report seemed to suggest—standing against same-sex marriage was a way to lose elections, not win them. But as Riggleman’s saga makes clear, there are many places in the country where issues such as LGBTQ rights are not at all settled. As the 117th Congress convenes this month, voices from those places may be the loudest ones on the right. “I’ve been screaming, ‘We need to become a big-tent party!’ for some time,” Riggleman told me. “But I think they misunderstood me and thought I meant ‘carnival tent.’”

Riggleman has spent the past six months battling the more fringe parts of his party. Shortly after he was effectively fired, he started receiving hate mail, calling him a “fag lover,” a leader of “Bibi Netanyahu’s pedophile ring,” and a “tool of the anti-Christ.” One troll even called his wife “the spawn of Satan”—making the two of them a sort of underworld power couple, Riggleman joked. “I really am not a big fan of conspiracy theories or radicalization,” he said. “There’s this bizarre stream of that running through the GOP right now. And it’s going to hurt the party.” He has used much of his final time in office to condemn QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy theory that has been promoted by conservatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the newly elected representative from Georgia. “It’s very hard to call myself a Republican if I believe there’s a significant portion of the party—even if it’s 15 to 20 percent—who believe some of those things,” Riggleman said. “Something that used to be called the Grand Old Party now stands for ‘Grandpa’s on Peyote.’”

The most conservative people within the Republican Party win power more easily when election rules work in their favor. Under Virginia law, party leaders can choose how they nominate candidates—no traditional primary elections required. Disgruntled GOP leaders in Riggleman’s district used that to their advantage, hosting a party convention in Good’s hometown in southern Virginia. This setup was designed to downplay moderate voices: The most active Republicans in the most conservative part of the state selected the candidate for a large and diverse district.

Since winning, Good has indicated that he does not accept the results of the presidential election. “It is historically difficult to defeat an incumbent president, and never before has a president ‘lost’ re-election with such a stellar economic record,” he tweeted. “It simply isn’t believable that Joe Biden so significantly outperformed Barack Obama to ‘receive’ a record number of votes.” He has compared the threat of contracting COVID-19 to everyday risks such as driving a car, and warned that Republicans may never win another election, because of voting corruption. (I texted Nancy Smith, Good’s campaign manager, asking for comment after the election, but never heard back.) Riggleman said he’s gotten frantic phone calls from Republicans in his district who didn’t quite realize who they were voting for. He sees Good as part of a new class of vocal conservative firebrands who just got elected to Congress: Lauren Boebert in Colorado, Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina, Georgia’s Greene. “You’re seeing this massive grift—this conspiratorial grift—that’s working,” Riggleman said.

Going into November’s election, pundits believed that Good’s conservative profile would alienate voters in the Washington, D.C., exurbs and the liberal area around the University of Virginia—“The Cook Political Report” rated the race a toss-up. Good’s Democratic challenger, Cameron Webb, a Black doctor from Charlottesville, focused his campaign message on issues such as expanding rural broadband access, health care, and education. But “there was a distrust of what Democrats were going to do, because I think there was a consistent message accusing all Democrats of being socialists. That muddied the water,” Webb told me the morning after the election. As a new candidate, with COVID-19 limiting in-person events, he was frustrated that he had to keep beating back these assumptions about his values. “So often, our politics can seem reductive. We just focus on culture wars,” he said. He ended up losing to Good by more than 20,000 votes—five percentage points.* “Are the principles upon which our nation was founded worth preserving?” Good asked supporters on Election Night, describing a “battle” to protect the country. “Or is America an evil nation, an illegitimate nation, a racist nation that needs to be torn down and built in a different image?”

Toward the end of his campaign, Webb stopped by Riggleman’s whiskey distillery, which has been manufacturing hand sanitizer during the pandemic. The two men chatted about the district, and how integrity is sometimes more important than winning. Webb bought a bottle of Riggleman’s honey rye, and the outgoing congressman wished him well. Although the two men have very different politics, they probably share more views than either does with Good. But this is not a season for moderation. “I didn’t leave the party. The party is leaving me,” Riggleman said.

Riggleman plans to spend his post-political career combatting the rise of conspiracy theories within the GOP. “I think disinformation could destroy our ability to have a working republic,” he said. For Christmas, he gave himself the gift of turning off social media and spending time with his family. He’s not concerned about the keyboard warriors who sit on beanbag chairs in their basement and yell at him online—“I care about as much about what people think on Twitter as I do about a Tupperware sale at Walmart,” he said. But he does worry that America’s culture wars have reached a new and dangerous level, inspiring confused vigilantism, such as the attempted storming of the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop in D.C. a few years ago. There are a lot of Rigglemans out there in America. But, for now, they are not the people shaping national politics. As Good heads to Washington, Riggleman will be sipping whiskey and watching the river on his 50-acre property, hoping that the country he loves doesn’t tear itself apart.

* This article originally stated that Cameron Webb lost to Bob Good by 200,000 votes. In fact, he lost by 20,000 votes.