Three Democratic women in Virginia upset Republicans in House of Representatives races Tuesday–but Leslie Cockburn wasn’t one of them. The investigative journalist and Rappahannock County resident fell short against Republican Denver Riggleman in the 5th district race, despite raising more money and an army of 1,500 volunteers.
The district, which includes Charlottesville and Albemarle County, is drawn even redder than when the last Democrat, Tom Perriello, won it 10 years ago, but Cockburn’s grassroots support had raised hopes of a flip, and several pundits had called the race a toss-up.
At Cockburn’s watch party November 6, exuberance over other Dem wins in Virginia and around the country was tempered by the numbers coming from the state elections website that showed Cockburn down by a 10-point margin.
State Senator Creigh Deeds says he knocked on doors for Cockburn and marveled over her campaign’s organization, but when asked to predict the outcome, he offered, “It’s a tough district.”
Delegate David Toscano made the same observation, but pointed out that Dems had won control of the House of Representatives and would be able to check the “dangerous” tendencies of President Donald Trump.
Around 8:30pm, MSNBC called the race for Denver Riggleman, and shortly before 9pm he spoke to supporters at Blue Mountain Brewery in Nelson County, where he lives and owns a distillery.
He said the fight against government overreach was part of the “liberty movement” and there were three positions one could take: “You can either be in the fetal position and accept what’s happening. You can run away, or you can fight. And right now in the 5th District, this is the fighting 5th and liberty lives here.”
It took another hour for Cockburn to concede. She was introduced by her daughter, actress Olivia Wilde.
“We have really changed the 5th District,” said Cockburn. She acknowledged the gerrymandered nature of the district. “We have moved the goalposts. We built something wonderful and we’re going to build on this thing and keep on going.”
She urged her supporters not to mourn the loss, but to start thinking about the next race. “I’m going to be canvassing” for Ben Cullop, she said, referring to one of her challengers in the primary who apparently is running for Congress again, according to Cockburn.
Kyle Kondik with Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball reiterated what he’d said all along: “We knew going in it was a tough district for any Democrat because it’s drawn to elect Republicans.”
In 2016, former Albemarle supervisor Jane Dittmar lost the 5th to Republican Tom Garrett by 16 points. This race was more competitive, says Kondik–Cockburn cut that margin to 6.5 points. And the district was “more Republican than the other three House races,” which were won by Jennifer Wexton in the 10th, Abigail Spanberger in the 7th and Elaine Luria in the 2nd.
Indivisible Charlottesville, a grassroots organization formed after Trump’s election, was dedicated to flipping the 5th, and members have been protesting regularly outside the Albemarle County Office building on Tuesdays since January, including on the stormy morning of Election Day. The morning after the race, organizer David Singerman was remarkably upbeat.
Citing Cockburn’s hundreds of volunteers, he says, “A lot of people who’d never been involved in politics before learned lessons and skills for 2019 and beyond.”
“When we do flip the 5th,” he says, “we’ll look back on this campaign as laying the foundation for that.”
Says Singerman, “We’re not stopping. We’re taking an enormous amount of pride in what we’ve accomplished the past two years. We’re looking forward to flipping the state House and Senate in 2019.”