Three Republican groups in Rep. Denver Riggleman’s district have voted to reprimand him in the weeks since he presided over a same sex wedding in July, triggering a strained debate about the Republican Party’s stance on same sex marriage in his Virginia district.
The efforts to censure Riggleman have been led in part by a consultant to an opponent to his 2018 nomination, a far-right social conservative, fueling speculation that some Republicans in his district are already laying the groundwork for a primary challenge in 2020.
The Rappahannock County Virginia Republican Committee voted to censure the freshman Republican last week, the third local GOP group to do so, the Rappahannock News reported.
The committee cited Riggelman’s votes in favor of granting more visas for foreign workers and for sending military support to Saudi Arabia. But the vote comes amid a high-profile dispute among local GOP leaders over whether to continue to back Riggleman after news broke that he wed two men, both former volunteers to his campaign, in July.
The Rappahannock, Bedford and Cumberland groups are among the 23 county and city Republican committees that fall under the party committee representing Riggleman’s 5th District.
The local votes follow a failed effort to censure Riggleman by a small coalition of the the 5th District Republican Committee. The motion failed when the chairman ruled it out of order.
Diana Shores, a political communications consultant and anti-abortion activist, led an animated effort to censure Riggleman as the chair of the Cumberland County Republican Committee and as a member of the district committee.
Shores unsuccessfully tried to overrule the district party chairman when he deemed the censure motion out of order.
Shores whipped votes for hard-right religious conservative Cynthia Dunbar, who has called for eliminating the constitutional principle of a separation between church and state, calling it a “fallacious principle,” during the 2018 nominating process for the 5th District before Riggleman won the nomination.
After incumbent Rep. Tom Garrett withdrew unexpectedly in 2018, an unusual nominating process by the 5th District Republican Committee followed. That allowed Riggleman, who holds views that do not align with the party’s platform on issues like civil rights for LGBTQ individuals, to capture the seat.
But Riggleman and his backers say the censure votes are not about that, accusing Shores of political opportunism.
“He doesn't involve himself in committee business, but was not surprised by the actions of unit chairs who had been employed by his former primary opponent,” Riggleman spokesman Joe Chelak told the Roanoke Times in a statement. “Their actions were clearly political, financially motivated, and lack credibility.”
Though the chairman of the district party, Melvin Adams Sr., ruled the motion to censure Riggleman out of order, he subsequently made homophobic statements on Facebook, deepening the controversy.
The University of Virginia College Republicans have called for Adams to resign, and the Young Republicans representative of the district party echoed those calls when he resigned his position in protest, underscoring a generational divide in the party.
Adams has rebuffed calls for him to step down. In marshaling his defense, he has cited the 2016 Republican platform, which states that “our laws and our government’s regulations should recognize marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
For their part, state GOP heads in Virginia have appeared unfazed by the maneuverings of local party leaders who tried to censure Riggleman.
“Given that the attempt [by the 5th District Committee] had so little support, I doubt the party will say anything on the ‘issue,’” executive director John Findlay told NBC News.
Riggleman garnered national attention during the 2018 election when his Democratic opponent revealed a sexually explicit drawing of Bigfoot that Riggleman had posted to Instagram and publicized a campaign stop Riggleman made alongside a man with white supremacist ties.
The state Democratic Party backed off that second claim, removing it from its website, when the family of the man pointed out that he peeled away from white supremacists ahead of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017. The man attended the campaign event as a private citizen, according to Riggleman’s spokesman.
Riggleman forcefully condemned white supremacy in a July 2018 op-ed.
Despite the headlines, Riggleman captured the district, which Trump won by 11 points.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race for the 5th District Solid Republican.
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