As Denver Riggleman’s time in Congress wound down at year’s end, some of his Republican colleagues wanted to know if they could get a couple of bottles of whiskey or bourbon before he left Capitol Hill.
“They’re picking over my corpse for some whiskey,” said Riggleman, whose family runs a distillery in Nelson County.
Riggleman has spent the past couple months criticizing President Donald Trump and Republicans for peddling conspiracies and attempting to overturn the presidential election results. Riggleman said some Republicans will tell him they think what he’s saying is right, but they can’t say those things, or else they’d lose their seat, too.
It’s a fitting end for Riggleman’s first and only term. The Republican with a “mean Libertarian streak” couldn’t stand the transactional nature of it all, how he couldn’t vote how he wanted to vote or say what he wanted to say without being torn apart by people in his own party. Riggleman did that — officiated a same-sex wedding and voted in favor of a resolution decrying Trump’s push to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and paid for it by losing his seat in an intra-party nomination contest.
“Can you believe the sh—— past two years I’ve had?” Riggleman laughed.
And now Riggleman doesn’t even know if he wants to be in the Republican Party anymore.
“There are some amazing people out there doing some incredible things, but what I’m seeing is that the party is not really Republican anymore,” Riggleman said. “It’s based on one thing, and that’s Donald Trump. And I despise authoritarianism, and so if it’s all based on one human being and the litmus test is not policy or ideas but loyalty and fealty to one individual, I’m not your huckleberry.”
Even though his time was cut short, he said he’s proud of what he was able to accomplish. He helped secure nearly $60 million in funding for expansion of rural broadband in Virginia.
He joined a bipartisan working group focused on tackling the opioid epidemic, and took an interest in veterans issues. He co-sponsored a bill that Trump signed into law that directs the Department of Justice to provide funding and assistance to state, local and tribal governments with veterans treatment courts or the intent to begin one so that veterans dealing with a variety of issues receive treatment rather than punishment.
He co-sponsored a bill — the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act — to close a loophole that allows insurance companies to deny oral and dental care to children with birth defects. The bill didn’t get a vote on the House floor.
Riggleman said serving as the representative for the 5th Congressional District was the hardest job he’s ever had (and he hunted terrorists when he was in the Air Force).
“I’ve been more humbled in these two years than I’ve been humbled my whole life,” Riggleman said.
It was several months into his term that he started feeling “really miserable,” he said. He began to worry that he would lose sight of why he wanted to go to Congress in the first place.
“I felt the pressure of the tribalism, that there were only two ways: Democrat or Republican,” Riggleman said.
He said there was pressure to vote certain ways if he wanted to advance his own priorities or raise campaign money. He had to satisfy political activists back home to avoid them setting up a primary challenge.
“You get caught up in this current in order to remain viable in the party,” Riggleman said.
Around that time, he decided to officiate a same-sex wedding for two young men who worked on his campaign. The wedding set off a firestorm among socially conservative political activists. It also set in motion a challenge from Bob Good, who identified as a Biblical conservative.
“At the time, I felt that even though I had a conservative voting record, I could feel that people were looking at me sideways, like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this guy isn’t 100% on our team,’” Riggleman said.
Jay Timmons, a gay man and Republican who served as former Gov. George Allen’s chief of staff, reached out to Riggleman to express his support after the congressman received backlash for officiating the same-sex wedding. Riggleman said not many Republicans were willing to stand by him.
“He’s a guy who is willing to stand up to do the right thing even though people would come after him,” Timmons said. “I always admire people like that, and sadly people like that are few and far between in politics these days, who are willing to swim against the tide and stand up for what’s right.”
Now Riggleman feels liberated to say what he wants. He’d condemned Trump for amplifying conspiracy theories. He’s lambasted Republicans in Congress for trying to sow doubt in the electoral process. He’s become one of the most outspoken Republican critics of QAnon, an online community organized loosely around the conspiracy theory that Trump is waging a secret war against deep-state pedophiles and satanists.
“What are they going to do?” Riggleman said. “Fire me again?”
The Appomattox County Republican Committee censured Riggleman in December for his “petty, immoral and ludicrous behavior.” It cites him officiating the same-sex wedding and criticizing Trump after using the president’s endorsement. He’s been censured before, so Riggleman wasn’t bothered.
Meanwhile, Riggleman said his successor, Good, is a “ridiculous clown” who is spreading dangerous misinformation.
Good spoke before a crowd of maskless Trump supporters in early December, telling the people holding signs saying the coronavirus was a hoax that it was a “phony pandemic.” Following up in a social media post, he suggested measures intended to curb the spread of the virus, like wearing a mask, are a hoax.
So if Riggleman doesn’t love the current Republican Party, and the party doesn’t love him back, why doesn’t he just leave?
“I don’t even recognize what the Republican Party is today,” Riggleman said. “At least in Virginia, there is no home for me in the Republican Party.”
He isn’t sure if he should try and stay in the Republican Party and fix it from the inside or leave it and allow it to fail.
“Once you let the crazy voices out of the popcorn box, it’s hard for people in the middle of the road to vote for people like that,” Riggleman said.
Timmons said Riggleman is probably right that there isn’t a home for him in the current GOP.
“The Republican Party across this country is going through a reckoning,” Timmons said. “There is a desire, which has not yet turned into a movement, for a viable third party, a party that is fiscally conservative, that understands the importance of a thriving business community and economic opportunity for all Americans, and a party to embrace diversity and inclusion and equality.”
Politicos continue to raise the possibility Riggleman will run for governor, but Riggleman said he’s not inclined to run for office right now.
“But sometimes I make impulsive decisions,” Riggleman said. “There are days I wake up and almost announce for governor, and other days I don’t. Wouldn’t I be a turd in the punch bowl?”
He’s amazed that Republicans aren’t being more vocal about what gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase is doing, like calling on Trump to overturn his election loss by declaring martial law and catering to the extremist crowd.
For now, Riggleman is headed back Silverback Distillery. He also recently joined the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks misinformation from extremist groups across social media channels, in an advisory role and to help write papers.
“I had a two good years,” Riggleman said. “I accomplished a lot, and I lost because I stood up to corruption and wanting people to live how they want to live.”