How a Gay Wedding Fractured Virginia Republicans
Alex Pisciarino and Rek LeCounte’s wedding day last July was hot -- the kind of soupy mid-summer heat that slows the South to a crawl.
“We warned everybody to wear seersucker and some light fabric,” LeCounte said. “And some folks didn't listen to us and you could tell how they wish they had.”
At the time, the couple had no idea their day would make national headlines. They met at a Log Cabin Republican event in Washington, DC, and later volunteered for Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Nelson). Asking Riggleman to officiate the wedding felt like a natural move.
But the wedding sparked a backlash and nomination challenge from former Liberty University athletics director Bob Good that may cost Riggleman his seat. For Good, a born-again Christian, Riggleman’s laissez-faire approach to same-sex marriage is emblematic of failings that make him unfit for office.
It may not matter that President Donald Trump Tweeted in December that Riggleman had his “Total Endorsement,” or that Riggleman has so far raised eight times as much money as his challenger.
Thanks to the unusual option in Virginia of holding nominating conventions rather than primaries, Riggleman’s fate rests with roughly 3,500 party activists at a drive-in convention set for Saturday. And in a campaign that has turned increasingly bitter, Good claims he’s secured the majority of their votes.
“Riggleman is in trouble,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
For Riggleman’s allies, his problems are emblematic of a party that has struggled to move past its shrinking base of older, white conservatives.
“It is truly a fight for the soul of the Republican Party in Virginia,” said Matt Colt Hall, a blogger for the conservative blog Bearing Drift.
Riggleman, a distillery owner and Air Force intelligence officer, won his last nomination in a small 2018 firehouse primary after the former 5th district Congressman, U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham, abruptly dropped out of the race amidst an ethics scandal and battle with alcoholism.
Riggleman cast himself as a freethinking Republican who occasionally bucks party lines on issues like decriminalizing marijuana and who has spoken out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. But on most key votes, Riggleman has aligned himself with his caucus; he voted against universal background checks for firearms, nixed a bill to give a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, and opposed an effort to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act.
On key votes related to LGBTQ rights, Riggleman has also hewed to party lines. He voted against Democratic efforts to enshrine sexual orientation and gender as protected classes in anti-discrimination law and voted against a resolution that condemned Trump’s ban on allowing transgender people to serve in the military.
Still, LeCounte, a self-described Army brat, found a lot to like in the former soldier’s sense of humor.
The couple met Riggleman’s staffers at a Target shortly after they moved down to Charlottesville to attend grad school at UVA. Pisciarino says Riggleman joked about it in his wedding speech.
“He said, ‘The most shocking thing about that is like the way these guys dressed, I didn't think they shopped at Target,’” Pisciarino said. “He’s just a funny dude. He’s just very easy to get along with.”
They got to know Riggleman while volunteering on his 2018 campaign. The two men felt aligned -- personally and politically -- with the libertarian-minded Riggleman. When they asked him to officiate, he agreed.
“I’d have been a coward if I didn’t,” Riggleman said in an interview with VPM. “The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, we’re the party of individual liberty.”
Still, it was an unorthodox move in a party whose 2016 national platform called marriage between a man and woman “the foundation for a free society.” A 2019 Pew poll found around 45% of Republican voters support same-sex marriage, a number that has steadily increased over time.
After their wedding day, LeCounte and Piscarino got lots of unsolicited feedback.
“People are saying you're changing the conversation within the party, which has been great,” Piscarino said. “You've had other people who were obviously not very supportive, who have said -- it’s not conservative, it's dirty, you’re sodomites.”
Riggleman was formally censured by three GOP committees in his district after officiating the wedding. Facebook groups in the district were filled with heated arguments and sometimes slurs. In a September Facebook post, Melvin Adams, chair of the 5th District Republican Committee, suggested homosexuality was largely caused by childhood trauma.
After the College Republican Federation of Virginia called Adams’ comments “abhorrent,” Adams apologized for anyone he offended.
In September, Good announced he would challenge Riggleman for the nomination. The marriage appeared to be a galvanizing issue; Good said he was recruited in August to run against Riggleman, a month after the wedding.
“By July, Republicans want to get rid of him,” Good said at a campaign event in February.
Early in his campaign, the former Campbell County Board of Supervisors member insisted he would not make the marriage an issue.
“I have a different view of marriage than perhaps Congressman Riggleman does,” Good told the Virginia Talk Radio Network in November. “However, I realize that good people disagree on that…. I have not chosen and will not choose to make that an issue in the campaign.”
Still, Good slipped in the marriage debate when he addressed a crowd at a campaign stop in February.
“[Riggleman] married a couple of gentlemen to make a statement -- to make a political statement -- to show that he’s a big tent, tolerant, progressive, new kind of Republican,” Good said.
But it’s not just same-sex marriage. In a debate with Riggleman last month on WINA, Good painted his rival as a lefty in disguise.
“He's out of step with the base of the party on life,” Good said. “He's out of step on marriage. He’s out of step on immigration. He’s out of step on healthcare, on climate, on drug legalization.”
Riggleman contested that. He pointed to endorsements from Good’s old boss, evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr., Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Trump as proof of his conservative bonafide.
“We don’t know what Bob Good’s definition of conservative is,” Riggleman said.
For Good, part of the answer is immigration: suspending immigration based on family ties, ending birthright citizenship, and mandating English as the U.S.’ national language.
“Reforming immigration is my top political priority, because if we don’t do that, we simply cannot win at the ballot box,” Good said in the debate.
Saturday’s nomination will be decided by a few thousand convention-goers rather than a full primary. Conventions are most often attended by a party’s most active voters, who also tend to be their most ideological ones, according to Kondik with UVA’s Center for Politics.
“It restricts the people who can participate to people who are involved Republican activists who are more conservative even than your average Republican primary voter,” Kondik said.
The risk for those party activists, Kondik says, is that Good could be a less attractive candidate in the general election. He says Republicans are probably secure in a district that Trump won by 13 points, and Riggleman, by about half that in a blue wave election. But the fissures of the party could endure past the nomination.
“They seem 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,” Kondik said.
The decisions behind this Saturday’s convention were made by a powerful district committee. Two members of the committee have received payments from Good’s campaign.
“There’s nothing wrong with people on the district committee supporting or working for candidates,” Good told WINA in an interview in April. “All it has to do is be disclosed.”
Riggleman is telling everyone who will listen that the process is corrupt.
“They know they can’t beat me any other way,” Riggleman told VPM. “Anywhere else, that would be called bribery.”
Adams, the committee chair, disputed the notion of wrongdoing.
“Every process has been transparent and in compliance with the state party plan and our own bylaws,” he said in an email.
Good claims he's enlisted at least 60% of the delegates. Other Republicans argue conventions are unpredictable or that Good is exaggerating his claims.
“People are starting to realize that Bob Good is all hat and no cattle,” said Matt Colt Hall, the conservative blogger.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is sympathetic to Riggleman’s frustration.
“If I had my way, we would never, ever nominate another candidate in a closed party convention,” Bolling said.
The Republican’s 2013 gubernatorial bid was cut short when the GOP state committee decided to use a convention. The process favored his more conservative rival, Ken Cucinelli. Bolling figured it would be an uphill battle persuading convention-goers: “the farthest right wing of the Republican Party -- Tea Party-type groups.”
Cucinelli eventually lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Republicans have lost all statewide races -- and the General Assembly -- in the last decade. Bolling says conventions push Republicans right -- away from newer, more diverse voters.
“The leadership of the party has to decide: are they really interested in winning political campaigns in a changing state?” Bolling said.
Still, Hall said the wedding has created more space for Republicans to consider same-sex marriage in a way that they may never have before.
“I’m seeing older conservatives change their minds, and have a kind of change of heart,” he said. “Really, conservatism is about self-governance, and we want to leave people alone to make their own decisions.”
But for Good, politics stems from an evangelical reading of the Bible. He casts himself as a defender of what he calls “Judeo-Christian values.”
His supporters have been more emphatic, slamming the “godless Democrat Party Platform’s promotion of homosexuality.” More recently, Riggleman has called for Good to distance himself from a campaign surrogate who, in a 2017 video, called LGBTQ people “a bunch of queers” and said minorities “would never be satisfied” after the presidency of Barack Obama.
Riggleman, meanwhile, has come under fire for comments he made in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which he called “awful” but said it was being “handled properly.”
Some Democrats smell blood. Four candidates have lined up to take on the winner of Saturday’s convention. All have out-fundraised Good but not Riggleman.
Privately, Democratic strategists say the district may be unwinnable -- at least this year. But with districts set to be redrawn before 2022 elections, Republicans may face fresh headwinds in wedding their differences.