When Anthony “Rek” LeCounte and Alex Pisciarino tied the knot last summer, they didn’t expect their wedding to become a flashpoint in a congressional campaign.
Shortly after moving to Charlottesville for graduate school at the University of Virginia, the pair of gay Republican activists became volunteers for Denver Riggleman, a libertarian-leaning distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer running for an open House seat. They struck up a friendship, and after Riggleman won the hard-fought race, the couple asked him to officiate their wedding at a nearby vineyard that summer.
"It was so exciting and such an honor for Alex and Rek to ask me to conduct a same-sex wedding," Riggleman told VICE News, calling the pair friends who "obviously love each other."
But some of the GOP activists in the Southern, rural-heavy district were furious that Riggleman would marry two men. A trio of Republican county committees officially censured him, and a similar attempt at the district level fell just short.
“We kind of expected some folks might be upset, but we weren’t expecting how fiercely angry and persistent they would be about it,” LeCounte told VICE News. “It’s frustrating. It’s unpleasant. The fact that there are all these people around the district who have opinions about our wedding is a very bizarre thought.”
Now, the congressman is facing a real test against a hard-right candidate in a race where a small cadre of diehard activists will determine if he gets renominated.
One of the activists who expressed outrage about the wedding was Bob Good, then the athletic director at Liberty University, a birthplace of the modern Religious Right that lies just outside the district.
“You can’t flaunt your apparently progressive/liberal values in front of the conservative Republican base in the district and expect to not catch any flak for it,” Good said on Facebook after posting a write-up of the wedding from the Washington Post.
He’s now running against Riggleman.
Good, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, isn’t just hitting Riggleman on this issue: He’s also criticized the congressman for supporting marijuana decriminalization and immigrant visa work programs, and has accused him of being insufficiently pro-life because Riggleman supports exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. But it’s clear what issue is motivating him and his allies.
“I have a biblical view of marriage, very different from the congressman’s view on that,” Good said at a February event. “He felt it was so important to show his view of marriage to conduct a gay wedding. He married a couple of gentlemen to make a statement, make a political statement, show that he’s a big-tent progressive new kind of Republican.”
If this were a normal primary, Riggleman would have little to fear. Except for his odd interest in bigfoot — and an inside joke about bigfoot erotica that became one of the 2018 cycle's weirdest scandals — there’s not that much about Riggleman’s resume that would put him in jeopardy in the GOP-leaning district.
“It’s a blue state, and the dumbest thing we could do as a party right now is take out those Republicans who have won.”
Riggleman has raised $1.4 million, 10 times the amount Good has brought in. A member of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, he has support from its current chairman, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and its former chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). He secured a coveted endorsement from President Trump, the only name that matters in modern GOP politics.
Riggleman even has the backing of Good’s old boss: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a close Trump ally and a leading right-wing evangelical, is supporting the congressman despite their sharply divergent views on same-sex marriage.
But in Virginia, local officials get to decide whether to hold primaries, which allow all voters in the district to easily cast ballots, or opt for much more byzantine and time-consuming conventions. This time, the local committee — a board with a number of people who slammed Riggleman for his views on gay marriage, including two people currently working on Good’s campaign — opted for a convention.
The current plan will force voters to drive up to three hours, then wait in their cars to vote in what might be the first-ever drive-thru political convention. That’s a hard sell for the average voter. The convention site just so happens to be at a church just a few miles from Good's home, near the southern end of a central Virginia district that sprawls more than 200 miles south from D.C.’s exurbs to the North Carolina border.
“Has there ever been a drive-thru convention in the history of Virginia? This is really ridiculous. It’s about disenfranchising as many people as possible,” Riggleman said. “They want to keep it small and control it all. I want this to be a big-tent party.”
Riggleman insists he’ll win in spite of his opponent's machinations, but some of his allies aren’t so sure. Conventions tend to bring out the most hardcore activists — the type of people willing to drive hours to wait hours more in a parking lot to cast their votes. The coronavirus has made things even less predictable.
“I know he’ll have a hard time,” said former Virginia Gov. George Allen (R), a Riggleman ally. “The world is controlled by those who show up.”
As petty as the race has become, it’s a test of which direction the Virginia GOP will turn after a decade of drubbing in a state they once dominated. D.C.’s fast-growing suburbs have slowly morphed Virginia from a solidly Republican, mostly rural and Southern-dominated state into one that leans suburban and blue. And Republican activists’ self-owns have speeded up that process.
In 2018, race-baiting Trump devotee Corey Stewart won the Senate nomination — and his inflammatory rhetoric helped drag down the ticket, the latest in a long string of hard-right Republican nominees who cost their party in the state. The GOP lost three House seats that election, with Riggleman’s close win the only bright spot for the party. If Riggleman wins renomination, he likely has the edge in the general election. But if the GOP nominates Good, the seat may well flip, taking a congressional delegation that had 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats before the 2018 election and turning it to a possible 8-3 Democratic advantage.
But a segment of the GOP don’t seem to have learned their lesson.
“No one’s ever conservative enough for them, everyone's gotta be pure, and there are enough people who attend conventions where purity of thought and conservatism is everything,” said former Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck, who's doing some work for Riggleman’s campaign. “We haven’t won a statewide race in a decade. It’s a blue state, and the dumbest thing we could do as a party right now is take out those Republicans who have won.”
Cover: Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) officiates the wedding of former campaign volunteers Rek LeCounte and Alex Pisciarino in Crozet, Va., July, 2019. (Photo: Jamie Sivinski of Mirage Photography Studios, courtesy of Rek LeCounte and Alex Pisciarino)