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A Republican congressman faces a primary challenge from a challenger affiliated with Liberty University, the evangelical college founded by the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., due to his decision to officiate a same-sex wedding between two gay conservatives.
U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, a first-term representative, officiated the July 2019 wedding of Alex Pisciarino and Anthony “Rek” LeCounte, a gay couple who volunteered for his successful 2018 campaign.
Riggleman, who is more of a libertarian-leaning conservative, has defended the decision, arguing that the Republican Party values freedom and individual liberty.
“My real belief is that government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all, but if it is, everybody has to be treated equally before the law,” Riggleman told the Washington Post following the wedding. “And that is part of our Republican creed. And it also comes down to love is love. I’m happy to join two people together who obviously love each other.”
But some Republicans in his congressional district took issue with that stance, noting that the Republican Party’s platform from 2016 — which was recently re-adopted in full for the next four years — condemns the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage and claims that marriage, defined only as a union between one man and one woman, “is the foundation for a free society.”
Some of those party faithful attempted to censure Riggleman for his actions, but that motion ultimately failed after the committee chair ruled it out of order. But afterwards, the Cumberland County Republican Committee unanimously passed a motion of “no confidence” in Riggleman for officiating a wedding even though he had campaigned on getting government out of the marriage business.
The backlash from social conservatives in the mostly rural 5th Congressional District, which stretches from Fauquier County in the D.C. exurbs, through Charlottesville, and down to Danville, along the Virginia-North Carolina border, has continued, with Bob Good, a religious conservative and former athletics administrator at Liberty University, announcing his intent to primary Riggleman, attacking the congressman for being insufficiently conservative.
Riggleman has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, who remains popular in the district, but Good’s ties to the Lynchburg-based Liberty University, and its extensive alumni network, potentially give him an added advantage when it comes to turning out social conservatives.
Additionally, Republicans in Virginia have the option of picking congressional nominees through conventions, rather than through primary elections, and decided that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that selecting a nominee through a much less heavily-attended convention would be preferable, Thomson Reuters Foundation reports.
In lieu of an in-person convention, the 5th District Republican Committee will instead hold day-long, drive-through voting on Saturday, June 13, in the parking lot of Tree of Life Ministries in Lynchburg. About 3,500 delegates are eligible to cast ballots but turnout is expected to be much lower, meaning only the most enthusiastic Republicans are expected to show up. Republicans had the option of opening up additional drive-through voting locations, but decided against that.
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told NPR that the small number of expected voters means Riggleman is potentially in danger of losing his party’s nomination. Although Good would be favored in a general election, he would have a more limited appeal to general election voters and independents.
Kondik noted that some activists are “very caught up in this gay marriage issue when I think a lot of Republicans– and a lot of conservatives — have moved on from it.”
That, coupled with the fact that turnout in Democratic areas — of which the district has quite a few — is expected to be extremely high in November due to the presidential race, might force Republicans to spend money to defend a district Trump won by 13 points four years ago.
That means less money and fewer resources going into districts like the neighboring 7th Congressional District, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is considered one of the most vulnerable congressional incumbents in the country.
Perhaps sensing potential vulnerabilities, four Democrats are running in a primary on June 23 to take on the eventual winner of Saturday’s convention.
LeCounte told NPR that he will be urging his fellow Republicans to support Riggleman, in the hope of sending a message that “you can support LGBT equality and still be a staunch conservative, and, surprise, surprise, get elected and win elections.”
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