GOP purges right-wing members from Congress — to replace them with even more radical candidates

Republicans like Steve King and Denver Riggleman are being driven from office — by even crazier Republicans

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 16, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Denver Riggleman and Steve King (Getty Images/Salon)
Denver Riggleman and Steve King (Getty Images/Salon)

Under cover of the coronavirus chaos and amid our national uprising, Republicans have quietly uprooted some of their most controversial right-wing members of Congress — only to replace them with even more radical contenders for federal office, including devotees of the nonsensical QAnon conspiracy theory, ahead of this fall's election. 

More than 10 years after the Tea Party movement gave rise to the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus by targeting longtime incumbent Republicans who were deemed insufficiently right-wing, a recent set of wins by insurgent candidates over some of the most radical Republicans in Congress makes clear that the GOP has now passed every off-ramp on the road to extremism. While the mass Republican retirements ahead of the 2018 midterm elections greatly weakened the GOP, this cycle's purging of incumbents in safe red districts, will likely serve to further radicalize the GOP caucus. 

On Saturday, in a novel case of voter suppression, a small group of Republicans in Virginia's 5th district voted to oust Rep. Denver Riggleman, a far-right Freedom Caucus member who voted with President Trump nearly 95% of the time since winning a competitive 2018 race amid a Democratic wave. 

An Air Force veteran who favors the legalization of marijuana, but can hardly be described as a moderate, Riggleman ran afoul of his fellow Republicans when his libertarian leanings led him to officiate a same-sex wedding ceremony for two former campaign volunteers last year. 

"I'd have been a coward if I didn't," Riggleman told NPR. "The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, we're the party of individual liberty."

"The Republican Party, when you look at the creed to protect civil liberties and religious liberties, could be the most inclusive party in the country," Riggleman said on the campaign trail. "And you know, why aren't we a big-tent party? Why aren't we looking at liberties first? Why aren't we allowing people to live the way they want to live and stopping the government from reaching into every aspect of our lives?"

Instead, after losing every statewide race in the past decade and losing the entire General Assembly, Virginia Republicans decided that fighting equal rights for the LGBTQ community was the hill to die on, during Pride month no less. Due to the coronavirus, and in a process Riggleman claims was engineered to hurt his campaign, roughly 2,500 party activists cast ballots in a drive-through format in a parking lot. Although the district is larger than New Jersey, Republicans only allowed voting at one location — a church in the winner's home area. 

Bob Good, who defeated Riggleman in that primary, is a fundamentalist zealot and a former athletics director at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Good essentially ran for office because he was upset by Riggleman's involvement in a gay wedding, calling Riggleman "out of step with the base of the party." A born-again evangelical Christian and staunch social conservative, Good wants to end birthright citizenship and opposes abortion for any reason — even if the mother's life is in danger.

Republicans have a six-point registration edge in Virginia's rural 5th district, so in all likelihood Good will take office as an extremist backbencher who introduces wild bills that go nowhere. But there is a slim chance that Good won't even make the general election ballot this fall, as the Washington Post explains: 

Good missed the Tuesday deadline for filing a key form related to his candidacy, but he hand-delivered the form to the state elections office on Friday afternoon, election officials said. The board of elections routinely offers extensions in cases like these, and changing election dates due to the coronavirus may have created confusion about the deadline.

This may just be Republicans shooting themselves in the foot. The district has been re-gerrymandered to offset declines in rural populations and growth in urban populations in the last two cycles because it's been harder and harder to maintain as a "safe" seat for the GOP each cycle. After Riggleman's loss this weekend, the Cook Political Report announced it will move the Virginia 5th from "Likely Republican" to "Lean Republican." If the GOP had just left this seat alone, it would have taken a lot for a Democrat to unseat Riggleman, even in another wave election. Good winning this primary means that there's a slightly better chance for this seat to flip than there was before. It's also conceivable Riggleman runs as a write-in Libertarian candidate, even just to play spoiler since he views the primary process as so rigged. 

The notorious Rep. Steve King of Iowa is another right-wing incumbent who has already been booted from office this cycle. King, who has represented Iowa's 4th district in the northwestern part of the state since 2013, suffered a nearly double-digit defeat at the hands of state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who outraised King in the first quarter of the year by nearly $400,000. 

It was the first defeat of King's career, who has long been outspoken about his radical views. He warned on Twitter that "cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end" and cautioned that Americans cannot "restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

 After winning re-election by only three points in a deep red district in 2018, the nine-term Republican congressman was finally removed from three committee assignments by the leaders in his own party after he questioned the offensiveness of the term "white supremacist" in an interview with The New York Times.

Feenstra did not attack King for his racism, however, instead touting his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, former Iowa governor Terry Branstad and the National Right to Life Committee. With King's loss, the chances for a Republican pick-up appear further out of reach. 

Republicans also appear poised to send at least one QAnon believer to Congress this fall. Roughly 50 QAnon supporters are running for Congress this year, according to Media Matters

In May, Jo Rae Perkins won the Republican Senate primary in Oregon with more 49% of the vote against three other candidates. She told the New York Times, referring to the "Q" conspiracy theories, that "as people put together more and more pieces of the puzzle, they can see, yeah, this is real." She's been endorsed by Republicans in the state legislature and by the Republican candidate vying for Oregon's 4th congressional district.

"Q is a patriot," said Marjorie Taylor Greene in a YouTube video posted in 2017, referencing the anonymous seeder of the online theory that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of pedophile political elites. 

On Tuesday, Greene beat six Republican candidates running for the seat left vacated by retiring Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, qualifying for an August runoff against an an opponent she led in the first round by 20 points. The district is a safe Republican seat, and Greene claims to have the endorsement of Rep Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the leading House Republicans.

These Republican candidates — who believe in a satanic, pedophile deep state, and want to purge any member who even participates in a same-sex wedding — are supported by Republican officials and leadership, as well as the party's voters. Forget what that says about these particular individuals and their campaigns — what does it say about the Republican Party?

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Commentary Denver Riggleman Elections Gop Qanon Republicans Steve King