Yesterday, freshman GOP Rep. Tom Garrett (VA-05) announced he wouldn't seek a second term because of his struggle with alcoholism, following a Politico report alleging he and his wife had ordered his official staff to run personal errands. The reality is that Garrett, a Freedom Caucus member who had just $133,000 in his campaign account on April 8, was not an especially formidable incumbent. As such, the race remains in the Lean Republican column.
Virginia's 5th CD runs from Southside Virginia on the North Carolina border to the outskirts of Northern Virginia, taking in the liberal city of Charlottesville along the way. In 2016, it voted for President Trump 53 percent to 42 percent, and in 2017 it voted for GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie 54 percent to 45 percent. But now Democratic nominee Leslie Cockburn will have a head start on a yet-to-be-named GOP replacement.
The 5th CD GOP committee will have just two weeks to pick a replacement on the ballot, as the deadline for parties to certify a nominee to the State Board of Elections is 7 PM on June 12. Virginia's primary is that day, so it's too late for Republicans to hold a state-run primary. Ordinarily, the GOP would call a convention (which is how Garrett was nominated in 2016), but with only two weeks to go, the decision could fall to a smaller group of party leaders.
The condensed time frame could put a premium on GOP leaders tapping a self-funder who can scale up a campaign with less than six months before Election Day. Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner from Nelson County in the middle of the district, has announced he's in, as has real estate businessman Jim McKelvey, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination in 2010 and 2016. State Del. Michael Webert, from the northern end of the 5th CD, is also in.
State Sens. Bryce Reeves and Bill Stanley could also be interested. Reeves built a statewide profile during an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor last fall, but he lives outside of the 5th CD in Spotsylvania County. Stanley hails from Southside and unseated a Democratic state senator in 2011. But Republicans could be reluctant to field a legislator because it could weaken their position in the nearly deadlocked General Assembly.
The question is whether the Democratic nominee can capitalize on the GOP chaos with their own imperfect candidate. Cockburn, a former correspondent for PBS's Frontline who may be better known as the mother of actress Olivia Wilde, won Democrats' convention on May 5. Cockburn lives on a farm in rural Rappahannock County and has been a progressive activist in local fights against uranium mines and energy pipelines.
But Republicans are eager to highlight Cockburn's past writings — including a 1991 book she and her husband wrote critical of Israel — as evidence she's too extreme. Cockburn's extensive body of work over several decades is an opposition researcher's dream come true and if it weren't for the potential for a Democratic wave, it would be pretty easy for Republicans to disqualify her as a liberal elitist and fringe leftist.
In this sense, Garrett's exit may be an opportunity for Republicans. Had he remained in the race, he might have lacked the resources to build any kind of narrative against Cockburn on the airwaves in the fall, and the NRCC or Congressional Leadership Fund may have had to carry the burden to keep this seat in their column. Now, it's possible they could field a stronger messenger to drive that contrast in a district spanning multiple media markets.
Democrats most recently won this district in the 2008 wave, when Tom Perriello upset then-GOP Rep. Virgil Goode by fewer than 1,000 votes. Perriello's win was attributable to a perfect storm of a weak and eccentric Republican incumbent, extraordinary enthusiasm in Charlottesville and high turnout among African-American voters in Southside. But Perriello lost in 2010 and 2011 redistricting made the 5th CD a point more Republican.
To win this seat, Democrats will probably need a combination of a flawed Republican replacement, extraordinary turnout in Charlottesville and depressed GOP turnout elsewhere. In Cockburn's favor, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine's reelection race doesn't appear to be competitive, so Republican voters' enthusiasm may not match Democrats'. But this is still an uphill climb for Democrats, and our Lean Republican rating hasn't changed.