GOP a vehicle for far right in Virginia elections
Booze producer and Republican candidate Denver Riggleman. | Steve Helber / AP

Virginia holds its primaries on June 12, and whatever the outcome, the election has not, so far, been boring. There is no state election this year, just federal Midterms and some local races. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D) is up for re-election. His Republican opponent will be one of three members of the far-right fringe. The strongest appears to be Corey Stewart, who chairs the County Board of Supervisors in Prince William County.

He is challenged by two other far right-wing figures, Delegate (State Representative) Nick Freitas, who defines himself as a “libertarian” conservative and has emphasized “gun rights”, and Bishop E.W. Jackson, who emphasized repealing “Obamacare.”

Stewart has made a name for himself nationally by means of lurid immigrant-bashing speeches and, even though he is from Minnesota, defending the Southern heritage as epitomized by statues and place names that glorify the Confederacy and its leaders. All three Republicans opposed a major legislative victory for the people of Virginia, the expansion of Medicaid coverage to about 400,000 low income Virginians: Stewart and Freitas explicitly and Jackson implicitly, given that the expansion depends on the continuation of the ACA which Jackson wants to abolish. Stewart was vitriolic toward the Republican members of the State Senate who joined all the Democrats to pass the legislation.

Going into the primaries, Kaine, who has no Democratic primary challenger, appears to be safely ensconced in his Senate seat, irrespective of which right-wing extremist gets the Republican nomination. But there are five months to go until the general election.

Flipping GOP House seats

Virginia has eleven House seats, occupied currently by four Democrats and seven Republicans. It would appear that none of the Democrats are currently in danger, either in the primary or in the general election. So, the name of the game has been “which Republican seats might be flipped?”

Up until recently, the only one that seemed to be in play was the seat of Republican Barbara Comstock in the 10th Congressional District. That district is the farthest to the North in Virginia, extending from the border with West Virginia along the state’s Northern border with Maryland, and ending up in the Washington D.C. metro area. It is a wealthy area but has seen demographic changes which have put it into play. The authoritative Cook Political Report and many other analysts see this seat as the Democrats’ best chance in Virginia, and one of their best in the country.

Comstock has portrayed herself as a “moderate” Republican, sort of the un-Trump, but her funding by the National Rifle Association has come back to haunt her. Originally eleven people jumped into the Democratic Primary; that total is now down to six.

The Washington Post and many others have endorsed State Senator Jennifer Wexton for the position. Our Revolution of Northern Virginia, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign, has endorsed political newcomer Julia Biggins, a medical research scientist who supports single-payer healthcare (Medicare for All)  and free Pre-K and tuition-free community college, among other progressive positions.

Up until recently, this article would have ended at this point. However, the Cook Political Report now rates three more of the seven Republican-held congressional districts as potentially coming into play, listing them as “likely Republican.” This means that it’s an uphill struggle for the Democrats, but they have a shot.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the Fifth Congressional District, which stretches from the North Carolina border in the south, along the Appalachian foothills up to northern Virginia. It is mostly rural and mostly white, which is why it has elected Republicans in recent House elections. But in 2008, it elected left-of-center Democrat Tom Perriello. Perriello was ousted by Republican Robert Hurt in 2010. Hurt won again in 2012 and 2014, but then retired and was replaced by Republican Thomas Garrett Jr. in 2016.

Many assumed that Garrett was a shoo-in for re-election, but now he is utterly disgraced and has stepped out of the re-election race. Members of his congressional staff had complained that Garrett and his wife had been using them, against House rules, as servants to run personal errands, including cleaning up after their dog. In announcing that he is ending his re-election campaign, Garrett did not cite this scandal, but rather his struggle with alcoholism.

Whiskey Rebellion

So, the Republican Party in the Fifth Congressional District had to engage in a mad, last minute scramble to find a replacement for Garrett. They met on Saturday Morning, June 2, to decide between the most likely candidates, former military intelligence officer and distiller Denver Riggleman and religious activist Cynthia Dunbar.

Though both are far to the right, it is possible that Dunbar was too extreme even for the Trump era Republican party, as she is on record calling, on biblical principles, for the end of the separation of church and state, of government aid to the poor and of public education.

Riggleman is also hard right. He bases his libertarian right attitudes on what he sees as government interference by taxation and regulation with businesses like his own Silverback Distillery, which, incidentally, produces something called “Strange Monkey Gin”. He is a big supporter of the Trump tax cuts, for the same reason. He opposes one of the pipeline projects in Virginia, not so much because it is a threat to the environment, but because it will interfere with the property rights of people through whose land it will pass.

So, the booze producer will face off against the Democratic Party’s candidate, journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, who does not have to deal with a primary challenger. The mud is already being slung, with a bogus accusation that Cockburn is an “anti-Semite” because of the book she and her husband Andrew Cockburn wrote which criticizes the Israeli government and U.S. entanglements with it.

Turnout, as always, will be the key

This is still an uphill fight for Cockburn but given the controversies over Garrett and Trump and the possibility of an increased turnout of the Democratic Party base, she might just pull off a victory. In the 2016 presidential elections, Trump beat Clinton in the Fifth Congressional District by 53.11 percent to 42.09 percent, with the rest going to minor candidates.

In the 2017 state elections, there was a big jump in the turnout of the Democratic Party’s base, with the result that the Democrats got more popular votes than the Republicans. All three state executive offices were won by Democrats, and the Democrats came within a millimeter of overturning the formerly “insurmountable” Republican majority in the House of Delegates.

The successful Medicaid expansion effort was made possible by that electoral victory, so if turnout of the Democratic base is high enough, possibly Cockburn can be elected. In the Fifth Congressional District, as in the rest of Virginia, overwhelmingly white rural districts have been voting Republican, but medium-sized towns and cities, especially those with large numbers of African American voters, have been giving the Democrats big margins.

The Fifth Congressional district includes, for example, Charlottesville, the university town where the far right organized a deadly riot last August, and Danville, a fifty percent African-American city on the North Carolina border. In these and other places the vote for Cockburn will be high, but will it be high enough in a year without a presidential contest, and high enough to overcome the inevitable vote suppression effort in Republican-run areas?


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.