U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Republican who was running for a second term in Virginia’s 5th congressional district until he was ousted in a convention this past summer, says he’s considering a run for governor.
But he’s not sure, as he sounds the alarm on the spread of the unfounded QAnon conspiracy theory, whether he still wants to be part of the GOP.
Riggleman, who lost the primary after he officiated a gay marriage, is mulling not just whether he would run but if it would be as a Republican or an independent. In an interview with the Virginia Mercury, he voiced his concerns with QAnon and questioned his future within his own party.
“If you’re not willing to call out things that are blatantly and obviously wrong, I think we have an issue,” said Riggleman, who’s been battling with QAnon supporters on social media and just last weekend called them out in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He recently co-sponsored a resolution in the House condemning the far-right conspiracy that, through the internet, fosters anti-Semitic tropes and false claims that Democrats and liberal Hollywood elites are running a Satanic pedophile ring that President Donald Trump is secretly fighting to stop. The FBI has listed the group as a potential terrorist threat.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous that there’s anyone who would believe that Democrats have a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles that are funding a deep state coup against the present administration,” Riggleman said. “That’s incredibly ignorant.”
Regardless of the fringe theories perpetuated by the group, the National Republican Congressional Committee — the House Republican campaign arm — has endorsed House candidates who are either backed by QAnon, have peddled their ideas or are sympathizers. They include Burgess Owens for Utah’s 4th District, Colorado 3rd District candidate Lauren Boebert and Madison Cawthorn for North Carolina’s 11th District, though Cawthorn aides insist he has disavowed QAnon even while he repeats their claims.
“For me, it does call into question whether I even want to be a Republican,” said Riggleman, who was first elected in 2018, with no previous experience in elected office, to represent the sprawling district that includes Warrenton, Charlottesville and much of Southside Virginia.
The emergence of QAnon did not happen overnight, said Saif Shahin, an assistant professor of communication studies at American University.
For the last decade, public trust in government institutions, lawmakers and mainstream media has eroded, he said, adding that allows groups like QAnon and other conspiracy theorists to tap into those levels of mistrust.
“We need to go back to building trust in public institutions. Otherwise, even … campaigns against disinformation, can be seen as its own act of misinformation,” Shahin said.
Within his own party, there was a backlash against Riggleman because he officiated a same-sex wedding for close friends. He blamed that criticism for his loss to Bob Good, a former Liberty University official and evangelical Christian who’s now the 5th District Republican nominee against Democrat Cameron Webb, a doctor.
Virginia allows for political parties to either hold a party-run nomination convention or a primary. Riggleman called the process rigged because two of the members of Virginia’s 5th District Republican Committee who decided on the nomination format received payments from Good’s campaign committee, NPR reported.
“They didn’t want a primary. They knew I would win a primary,” Riggleman said. “The reason they did it is because my views are much more socially libertarian than some Republicans in my district, specifically the committee members.”
Good criticized Riggleman’s values and said he didn’t align with the party’s view on marriage. Good is running on a campaign of ending birthright citizenship, making English the official language of the U.S. and traditional views of marriage.
Even with President Donald Trump’s endorsement, Riggleman lost. It’s a district that leans Republican and Trump won it by 11 points in 2016.
Good won 58 percent of the nomination votes in a contest in which about 2,500 party activists cast their ballots in a drive-through vote because of coronavirus concerns.
Riggleman also has clashed on Twitter with Republican House candidates backed by QAnon.
After the resolution condemning the fringe group passed the House, the Republican House candidate for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, Marjorie Taylor Greene, faulted Riggleman for not condemning leftist groups.
“I assume you’re working late tonight putting together a resolution condemning Antifa and ‘rejecting’ the violence they promote? Antifa is no ‘conspiracy theory,’” she wrote on Twitter to Riggleman, citing a shooting that occured in Denver, Colo., during a protest.
The Denver Police Department confirmed that the suspect was not affiliated with antifa — a violent anti-facist left-wing movement — and instead was a private security guard, but Taylor Greene insinuated that the suspect was part of antifa.
Riggleman told her to “check her facts” with the Denver Police Department and to not spread misinformation.
“Don’t encourage those who are fact challenged-conspiracy theorists like those in #QAnon — or LEFT & RIGHT fringe groups,” he tweeted.
Riggleman has appeared multiple times on cable news segments, including on CNN and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” to talk about QAnon.
In a Sunday interview, host Chuck Todd asked Riggleman how he felt about the GOP endorsing a candidate backed by QAnon like Greene, who is projected to win.
“I might as well piss everyone off,” Riggleman said. “The fact that we’re trying to appeal to them is ridiculous. I guess I scratch my head, as a former intelligence officer, Chuck — is what are we doing here?”
The acceptance of QAnon into the Republican Party is something that Riggleman thinks will spur the breakup of the two-party system. He believes a third, more centrist party will sprout.
“When you see the failure of the two-party system in the United States, I believe that other groups are going to start taking action saying ‘We’ve had enough of this’ and those groups I think are going to be the coalition of the same, or those who just want integrity in politics,” he told the Virginia Mercury.
It’s those observations dating from his time in Congress and the political makeup of his constituents that have made him consider running as an independent candidate for governor of Virginia. The state has a nonpartisan voter registration form, so there is no state data on how many voters are registered with a party.
“I really thought my political days were over” following the June convention, Riggleman said.
He thought about returning to the family business — he and his wife own a distillery — but his experience with losing the nomination left him frustrated.
“I really have a distaste for politics, but I believe that the people who hate politics need to stay involved, so it’s a bit of a conundrum for me,” he said.
Even though Riggleman’s had a short career in politics, he’s still proud of two issues he worked on in Congress. He co-sponsored a bill — the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act — that closed a loophole that allows insurance companies to deny oral and dental care to children with birth defects. He is hoping to get the measure to the House floor for a vote before he leaves.
“I think one of the most important things for growth of the economy is actually for children and education to be connected the same everywhere,” he said.
But there have also been regrets. The biggest one for Riggleman is a vote he cast against a resolution opposing a ban on openly transgender soldiers in the Armed Forces. Trump announced on Twitter that the U.S would reverse its position on allowing openly transgender solders to serve, based on objections it would harm readiness.
Riggleman, an Air Force veteran, said he interviewed military experts about whether or not the ban would affect readiness. He said he wished he had more time to analyze the resolution because while a majority of experts said it wasn’t an issue, he wanted to evaluate every possible medical issue that could arise.
“That one vote still bothers me today, because I don’t know if it was the right vote or not,” he said. “I was going back and forth and that’s maybe one vote that I would take back.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct an editing error. Riggleman lost his seat in a convention earlier this year.