Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District is not Democrats’ best hope for a House pickup this November — not by a long shot. Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, Mitt Romney carried it in 2012, and Ed Gillespie carried in the 2017 gubernatorial race, even though all three Republicans lost statewide.
But none of them won by a landslide, and a somewhat improbable confluence of events has left Republicans’ hold on the seat imperiled — starting with the Virginia GOP’s nomination of a neo-Confederate Senate candidate, continuing with a scandal-plagued incumbent stepping down, and ending with a candidate’s history with what I guess we are calling “Bigfoot erotica.”
My opponent Denver Riggleman, running mate of Corey Stewart, was caught on camera campaigning with a white supremacist. Now he has been exposed as a devotee of Bigfoot erotica. This is not what we need on Capitol Hill. pic.twitter.com/0eBvxFd6sG— Leslie Cockburn (@LeslieCockburn) July 29, 2018
Leslie Cockburn, the veteran investigative journalist (and mother of actor Olivia Wilde), is the Democratic nominee in the Virginia Fifth, and she is legitimately tweeting about her opponent’s Instagram posts about Bigfoot’s penis. It’s weird even for a weird year. But there’s a method to the madness.
The Cook Political Report still rates the race as Lean Republican due to its overall partisan tilt. But if Democrats take the House in November, it will be thanks to a race or two like this. Given the gerrymandered map Democrats need to compete on, it in effect takes a landslide nationwide to eke out a majority in Congress.
And to get a landslide, you can’t just win the easy races and pick up the likely pickups. You need some unlikely wins as well, where a favorable national political environment contributes to a favorable set of local circumstances and then gives you enough wind at your back to take advantage of the good fortune.
In short, while Bigfoot erotica isn’t exactly the most important issue facing the country this year, it could well prove decisive in the extremely important question of whether America elects a new Congress that is inclined to try to check Donald Trump or to stick with the status quo.
Um ... Bigfoot ... erotica?
The backstory here is that in November 2017, Virginia Democrats cleaned up at the polls, not only winning a governor’s race but knocking off a whole bunch of incumbent members of the House of Delegates. In the immediate aftermath of that election, Republican Rep. Tom Garrett of the Fifth District told Vox he feared a Democratic wave election. Then a few months later, Politico reported that Garrett had been using his staff as personal servants — making them chauffeur family members, pick up dry cleaning, etc. In response, Garrett announced that he is an alcoholic (an issue that seems to bear only a tenuous relationship to abusing staff) and that he would retire from Congress but not resign, thus letting the GOP avoid a special election.
Under Virginia election rules, that left the nomination for the 2018 race to be decided by a hastily assembled party convention, which went with retired Air Force intelligence officer and brewery owner Denver Riggleman.
Riggleman is the co-author of a self-published 2006 book called Bigfoot Exterminators, Inc.: The Partially Cautionary, Mostly True Tale of Monster Hunt 2006, a (nonerotic) work about people who look for Bigfoot.
His interest in the Bigfoot subject led to a number of posts on social media that appear to be focused on Bigfoot’s genitalia.
From my opponent Denver Riggleman’s Bigfoot erotica collection. pic.twitter.com/ELe0TWJh21— Leslie Cockburn (@LeslieCockburn) July 29, 2018
Riggleman tells the Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginia’s daily newspaper, that the posts have nothing to do with erotica but are rather “a joke his military friends played on him.” Riggleman has, however, set his old social media accounts to private, so it’s no longer possible to fully investigate the context in which the posts arose. The Cook Political Report says, however, that whatever the joke was, it involved the existence of a Facebook author page for a book to be titled The Mating Habits of Bigfoot and Why Women Want Him.
This whole thing sounds mostly ridiculous, but as Katie Heaney wrote in a 2014 BuzzFeed article, there really is a robust subgenre of Bigfoot porn. So it’s possible that either Riggleman really is a devotee of Bigfoot erotica, or else he stumbled into the subject while researching other Bigfoot-related matters and that became the origin of some kind of Bigfoot porn inside joke.
Realistically, though, this is not going to be the main issue in the race. The best way to think about it is probably that Cockburn is tweeting about this Bigfoot stuff because she knows the Bigfoot porn angle will tempt journalists to write about the race (for example, I am writing about the race), and that once they do, they will be inclined to also write about some more substantive matters — like the allegation that Riggleman pals around with white supremacists.
So what about those white supremacists?
In recent years, Virginia has emerged as the most politically progressive of the former Confederate states (displacing former champion Florida), and yet, due to the state’s history, it is also ground zero for memorialization of the Confederacy.
A newly ascendant political coalition in Virginia composed of African Americans, college-educated professionals in the DC suburbs, and families with immigrant roots in Asia or Latin America have been pushing a de-memorialization agenda — especially in the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville.
Virginia Republicans, including their gubernatorial nominee last year, have largely defended Confederate statues. But Corey Stewart, whom Ed Gillespie defeated for the gubernatorial nomination but who emerged as the GOP’s nominee in this year’s Senate race against Tim Kaine, goes considerably further in his Confederate enthusiasm, describing himself as a “proud Southerner” (he is from Minnesota) and saying the Stars and Bars are “our heritage, it’s what makes us Virginia, and if you take that away, we lose our identity.”
And, of course, things went even further with last year’s infamous “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Jason Kessler, a vocal Stewart supporter, is also the co-founder of a white nationalist group called Unity & Security for America.
Cockburn’s specific slam on Riggleman is that he was caught campaigning with Isaac Smith, Kessler’s co-founder. Smith, for his part, says he parted ways with Kessler years ago, and Riggleman wrote a strongly worded op-ed denouncing Unite the Right and saying white supremacists are “not welcome in Charlottesville.” To say that Nazis are unequivocally bad is perhaps not such a surprising political stance, but it’s one President Trump was unwilling to take, so that’s not nothing.
The bigger issue for Riggleman is Stewart himself. He’s been equivocal and evasive on the question of whether Stewart will campaign with him, caught between the perception that Stewart is toxic and the reality that he can’t afford to alienate his party’s electoral base. The result is Riggleman is running a somewhat odd version of a frontrunner campaign, basically trying to be as indistinct as possible and hoping the basic partisan lean of the district will carry him to a win.
Republicans don’t have a ton to say in 2018
Beyond Bigfoot, Cockburn — like most Democrats in this cycle — is talking about health care, specifically the benefits of Medicaid for rural areas, the impact of the Trump administration on premiums, ideas to reduce prescription drug costs, and her ultimate aspiration to see everyone enrolled in Medicare. She also has issue planks on environmental protection and education.
None of these ideas are particularly earth-shattering stuff, and standard-issue Democratic Party proposals may not go over well in a district that voted for Romney, Gillespie, and Trump.
And that basic partisanship is what Riggleman is banking on, since his campaign site literally has no issues section at all. On social media, Riggleman talks vaguely about how the Trump tax cuts are good and pledges in a nonspecific way to “support the agriculture industry.”
Pro-growth tax policies work! Our economy grew at 4.1% in the second quarter, the fastest rate of growth in nearly four years. I will work to pass more pro-growth policies in Congress.https://t.co/OXlOsOe7kM— Denver Riggleman (@Denver4VA) July 27, 2018
This relative paucity of content and substance is fairly typical for Republicans in the 2018 cycle, most of whom — like Brian Kemp in Georgia — are running heavily on culture war topics rather than policy per se. Riggleman, somewhat caught up in the larger swirl of Virginia events, hasn’t even dug deep on the culture war, leaving him mostly saying nothing at all.
And that might be good enough for him. It’s a pretty solidly red district, and while anti-Trump forces are activated locally, as they are elsewhere in the country, there was no sign from the 2017 results that an anti-Trump backlash had swept the area — even as it really did sweep other portions of Virginia.
But the national political climate has evolved in a very difficult direction for Republicans — Democrats have a generic ballot lead of more than 7 percent — and the GOP has a weak candidate at the top of the ticket in Stewart and plenty of vulnerable incumbent members the national party needs to invest in defending.
In part precisely because of that bad political climate, the state party found itself without a more traditionally vetted nominee like an incumbent state legislator or elected prosecutor, and poorly vetted nominees sometimes turn out to make weird, Bigfoot-related missteps. And while there simply aren’t enough blue-leaning districts out there to give Democrats a majority, a large lead in the generic ballot means lots of Democratic nominees in red-leaning districts are within striking distance of a win and ready to try to turn any misstep into electoral victory.