Denver Riggleman is more than a little bit of a political enigma. The Nelson County businessman who’s halfway through his first term in the House of Representatives, where he represents the sprawling Fifth Congressional District, draws the ire of folks from across the political spectrum.
And the Republican with more than a slight streak of libertarianism in him is seemingly just fine with that.
A businessman who owns Silverback Distillery in Nelson County, he first dipped his toes into the political waters when he ran a brief campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2017. Few people outside Nelson County had ever heard of him, which likely led to his withdrawal after several months. But those months on the statewide campaign trail raised his profile in the Fifth District, which sprawls from Southside Virginia on the North Carolina border to the Washington suburbs. More than a few folks grew to like the gruff, non-politician who spoke whatever was on his mind.
Fastforward to the spring of 2019. Tom Garrett, the incumbent who had declared for re-election to a second term, abruptly dropped out of the contest, citing the need to treat his alcoholism amid a House ethics investigation into how he ran his office. Republican leaders in the district were scrambling to find a candidate, ultimately prevailing on Riggleman to toss his hat into the ring.
But for some folks, Riggleman didn’t hale from the right wing of the party. They put social conservative Cynthia Dunbar, a resident of Forest in the Sixth District and a failed candidate for that district’s congressional nomination, as an alternative to Riggleman. Eventually, at a tense district meeting, Riggleman prevailed.
He would go on to sweep to victory in November 2018, defeating Leslie Cockburn, a well-funded Democratic candidate.
In office, he’s been a strong supporter of President Trump, most notably casting a vote against impeachment. But he has broken with the president on issues he believes are important to his district and the country.
There’s one incident, though, that has drawn the anger of the religious right: Last summer, he officiated at the same-sex wedding of two campaign volunteers. As a result, Campbell County Supervisor Bob Good launching a challenge for the 2020 GOP nomination.
While the evangelical wing of the party is furious with Riggleman, he’s finding a great deal of support among younger members of the party, a demographic the GOP needs to attract in the decades ahead, said Riggleman backer Tanner Hirschfeld of Charlottesville. Next year when district Republicans gather at a convention to pick their nominee, it will be interesting to see whether they stick with Riggleman or go with a challenger who looks to the party’s traditions for its future.