Bob Good for Congress

Fifth District Republican congressional candidate Bob Good.

How the Republican party replaced a moderate incumbent

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 4, from his campaign headquarters overlooking Liberty University’s football stadium in Lynchburg, Republican Bob Good delivered his victory speech. The votes were tallied and the people of Virginia’s sprawling Fifth District had spoken. The former LU associate athletics director would become their next congressman.

“It’s funny, this race was called the most competitive race in the country,” Good said that night to a jubilant crowd of supporters. “I think that’s because there were a lot of people who wanted that to be so.”

The crowd erupted with cheers and applause.   

“All these so-called prognosticators,” Good said, “flipped” their ratings from “Toss-Up” to “Leans Republican” at the last minute, after manipulating polls to try to raise funds for his Democratic opponent Cameron Webb.  

Indeed the prognosticators — including the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the oft-quoted Cook Political Report — distinguished the Fifth District race between Good and Webb as the only one in the entire country where polling suggested either candidate had a 50/50 chance of winning. And indeed, UVa’s Center for Politics changed its rating on the eve of the election. 

(Kyle Kondik at UVa’s Center for Politics refuted Good’s allegation that he and his colleagues decide ratings based on anything other than merit, telling the Rappahannock News that they “always move every race from ‘Toss-up’ to ‘Leaning’ one way or the other before the election,” and that the Fifth was no exception.)

Despite the projections indicating a close race in the Fifth and record voter turnout, it surprised almost no one — least of all Good himself — when the GOP candidate won the vote by a roomy 5-point margin. 

The wedding that split the baby

Republican incumbent Denver Riggleman unknowingly climbed into a coffin of his own making when he officiated the same-sex wedding of two campaign volunteers in July of 2019. The immediate backlash from his own party made headlines. 

On July 27, Republican Committee Chair Melvin Adams penned a letter to his party titled “5th District GOP Committed to Inclusiveness.” 

In it, Adams wrote that “the fifth district Republican committee is absolutely committed to inclusiveness” but that “it is also important to state that our district committee is absolutely committed to our Party Platform.” 

Quoting the section of the platform pertaining to matters of “family, marriage and society,” Adams reaffirmed the belief that marriage is “ the union of one man and one woman.”

The issue of Riggleman’s failure to toe the party line simmered until Sept. 13, 2019, when this newspaper reported that the Rappahannock County Republican Committee had taken a “decisive” vote to “censure” Riggleman. The committee made no reference to the wedding, instead citing “serious deviations” from President Trump’s agenda (even though Riggleman’s voting record shows the number of times he contradicted Trump could be counted on one hand). 

“This is a rarely exercised option,” said one Republican Committee member who wished to remain anonymous. “But in this case Riggleman’s votes are so antithetical to Republican voters here in the county and across the district that conscientious citizens are taking action.”

Riggleman’s congressional office said the accusations were unwarranted, but nevertheless the same GOP member told the Rappahannock News that “a recruitment effort [was] well underway across the district.” The party was determined to find Riggleman’s replacement.

In short order the congressman found himself fending off GOP challenger Bob Good, a former Campbell County Supervisor and Liberty University alum. 

Good alleged that the congressman was “out of step” not with Fifth district voters, but with “the base of the party,” and the issue of marriage was just the tip of the iceberg. In a debate hosted by WINA, Good accused Riggleman of missing the mark on abortion, immigration, health care, climate — and drug legalization to boot.

Then in June, at a particularly newsworthy Republican “drive-thru” convention in the parking lot of Lynchburg’s Tree of Life Ministries, Riggleman’s congressional career was swiftly and decisively ended.

Good won 58 percent of the primary votes to the incumbent’s 41 percent “despite,” as Good puts it, “being outspent nearly ten to one and battling against all the advantages of incumbency in what was the largest convention on record in the Fifth District.”

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The party

“The convention process brings out the political die-hards and the party stalwarts,” said Suzanne Long, Fifth District Democratic Committee Chair. “Those are the people who are willing to take a Saturday morning and sit through three hours of speeches and so forth to vote for their candidate of choice.”

Long explained that the upside of hosting a convention — as opposed to a state-run primary — is that it “forces the candidates to go to all the localities” and introduce themselves to delegates across the district. 

But the downside? Conventions favor political parties rather than normal voters.

“It totally disenfranchises the average voter because it’s on a certain day at a certain time at a certain location and you cannot play if you cannot attend,” Long said.

Long added that the last time the Democrats held a convention-style primary was in 2018 when it nominated Leslie Cockburn to run against Riggleman but that they will “probably never do it again.”

“It smacks of the party controlling the process — if you don’t want Denver Riggleman to be renominated then you make sure you send delegates that are for Bob Good down there to vote,” Long said.

But Good told this newspaper he believes the characterization of the June convention as a venue for the connivances of “Republican insiders” is inaccurate. “We had 2,500 delegates participate compared to just some 600 or so in our most recent contested convention in 2016,” Good said in an interview. 

“It was record participation … no one was disenfranchised, so to speak, or not permitted to participate. Every voter who wanted to be a delegate was able to be a delegate and there was room for many more,” Good said.

The district

When it came time to “pivot to the general,” Good claimed he didn’t water down his platform or “move away [from his position] like Joe Biden did.” Instead, he doubled down. 

“What we did was stay true to who I was as a conservative and what my convictions and my principles and my core beliefs were,” he said. Good contrasted himself against his opponent Cameron Webb, the internal physician at UVA Hospital with a dual degree in law who served as an advisor to both the Obama and Trump administrations and who branded himself as a “healer” and “consensus builder.”

For one thing, Good said his campaign emphasized Webb’s “extremism on life and our conservative views on life.” He differentiated their views on the economy, energy, taxes and law enforcement. (In the only debate the candidates had, Good said he supported making the assault of a police officer a hate crime and “imposing an automatic death penalty when someone kills a police officer.”)

Asked if he agreed with those who have called him a “hardliner,” Good responded that he saw himself instead as “a strong conservative,” and encouraged voters to “infer” from his endorsements. “Infer from the Ted Cruzes and the Jim Jordans and the Tom Cottons that Bob Good would be similar in his voting record in congress,” Good said.  

So what is it about a Ted Cruz or a Tom Cotton that appealed to Fifth District voters? 

Adams told the Rappahannock News that Good won because of “his core values, his consistency in articulating the issues [and] his party affiliation.”

Mary-Sherman Willis, Chair of the Rappahannock Democratic Committee, put it plainly. “He’s an ‘R’,” she said. 

The ‘R’

Democrats were hopeful in 2020 that this year they might “flip the Fifth,” especially with projections of increased voter turnout.

“The long-held conventional wisdom would be that more people voting would favor Democrats but it does seem that there were plenty of disengaged or marginal voters who voted Republican this time around,” said Norman Leahy, a political columnist for The Washington Post and the former editor-in-chief of Bearing Drift, a conservative politics website.

Both Leahy and Willis noted, however, that the margin by which Good won the 2020 election (5.14 percent) was a point and a half different from the margin between Riggleman and Cockburn in 2018 (Riggleman won by 6.6 percent).

“So there were more Democrats,” Willis said, “but there were also more Republicans."

The Fifth District stretches from Virginia’s southern border with North Carolina to the exurbs of Washington, D.C. It is bigger than New Jersey, primarily rural and terrifically gerrymandered. One reporter for the Atlantic aptly described it as a “district where Bible Belt activists, suburban moderates, and college-town free-market types mix together." 

“The Fifth is designed to elect a Republican,” Leahy explained. “And that’s exactly what it did."

A week before the election, Leahy predicted that Good would win the election but added that, as a GOP candidate, Good was a “disaster.” 

“Webb has run a far more effective, professional and inspirational campaign than Good,” Leahy wrote in his column. “Webb should win and, were he running almost anywhere else in Virginia, he would win.

But he didn’t.

Regardless of the fact that Good’s campaign raised only a fraction of Webb’s funds in the general election, regardless of the campaign forgetting to file a candidate declaration in the primary and landing in hot water for failing to report assets on his required financial disclosure, Good’s campaign was unsinkable

Good, Leahy said, “won almost in spite of himself.”

“I’m thankful that despite being heavily outspent we still received a majority of the votes within the Fifth District,” Good said. “I will do my best to represent everyone in the Fifth District, to validate the trust of those who voted for me and to earn the trust and support of those who didn’t vote for me.”