The National Republican Congressional Committee is labeling 5th district race congressional hopeful Leslie Cockburn “further to the left than almost any candidate in the country,” and deem her less a threat in November than one of her primary opponents she defeated.
At the same time, the Republican Party is “in a better place” now that freshman Rep. Tom Garrett has dropped out of the race, as the embattled congressman — and what little re-election effort he mounted — were floundering.
“It’s no secret that Garrett wasn’t raising any money,” a senior Republican operative assigned to numerous House races around the country, including this 5th district campaign, told the Rappahannock News during a recent interview. “So we’re in a better place now than we would be if he were running for reelection.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the GOP official praised Garrett as an individual, but said the timing of his announcement “that he was ‘alcoholic’ only contributed to the chaos in his office.”
Just days before declaring he would not seek re-election, Garrett saw his chief of staff resign and allegations surface that the lawmaker and his wife relied on his congressional staff to perform personal chores.
“I don’t know anything about that other than what I read,” said the Republican source, “but he couldn’t get it together. I just hope he gets the help that he needs.”
With Garrett all but gone, the official sought to assure Fifth Republicans that “we have somebody now who can raise money, who is focused, and who really wants to get this done.” Referring to Nelson County distiller Denver Riggleman, who has been chosen by party leaders to battle Cockburn and the impressive grassroots campaign she’s waging.
But the official branded Cockburn “a very flawed Democratic candidate, which also helps us,” disclosing that the NRCC betting had been on Roger Dean “RD” Huffstetler — one of three Charlottesville-area Democrats Cockburn defeated to become the party’s nominee — to emerge victorious from last month’s caucuses.
“I think that if RD had [won] this would be a different race because he is moderate. I think we’re seeing this across the country, in that the most progressive, most liberal candidate is coming out [ahead in] these primaries,” she said, “because that’s where the energy is right now. For moderates, once they get in the general [election] they kill it, but they don’t do well in these Democratic primaries.”
She further opined that “the ‘Bernie [Sanders] wing’ is almost overtaking the party at this point. And we’re seeing that across the country — in Florida, in California, everywhere. I think she [Cockburn] really benefited by being so far left. Originally, we thought it was going to be RD. He was raising money. He was quietly backed by the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and party committees.”
The official described it as unusual that “the DCCC has not come out and endorsed Leslie. They have this red to blue list of . . . districts they’re targeting. Virginia Five is one of them. I don’t know why they haven’t [endorsed Cockburn]. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Maybe they think her baggage is too much, that’s she unelectable at this point.”
The official campaign arm of Democrats in the House of Representatives, the DCCC is the only political committee in the country whose principle mission is to support Democratic House candidates “every step of the way.”
Asked about any pending Cockburn endorsement, DCCC regional press secretary Jacob Peters would only say: “The matchup was just recently determined, and we will continue to work with the Cockburn campaign and evaluate the race.”
The DCCC Finance Co-Chair happens to be Don Beyer, Virginia’s former lieutenant governor who has been Virginia’s 8th district congressman since 2015.
“Leslie impressed a lot of folks with her barnstorming campaign and unusual success in the Democratic caucuses,” Beyer said Tuesday evening. “Yes, the DCCC is still interested in Leslie. At the moment we have 104 targeted races — races we think we can win if everything goes perfectly. Credible shots. This is way more than we can afford to invest in.
“As the campaigns evolve, we will be doing our best to discern where our scarce dollars can best be spent. So we will keep looking at Leslie vs Denver, and hoping the entrails read well.”
Meanwhile, if Republican efforts to hang on to the all important 5th district seat appeared lackluster before, the GOP official proceeded to take off the gloves when speaking to the News.
“I think in the case of the Fifth, Leslie is further to the left than almost any candidate in the country,” she said. “She’s already getting hit for the book that she wrote, people are calling her anti-Semitic. I’m not really interested in lobbing that charge at anyone, but I think that the book speaks for itself . . . So that’s going to be an albatross that she’s going to have to deal with the entire campaign I think.”
A former journalist and documentary filmmaker, Cockburn strongly has denied any personal prejudices against Jews, saying the 1991 book she co-authored with her journalist husband, Andrew Cockburn — “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship” — is based on fact.
Cockburn, on the heels of the GOP accusations, met last month with a Jewish community group in Charlottesville, where few concerns were expressed.
Reminded that Cockburn accomplished in the caucuses what many said couldn’t be done, including defeating the three men she faced, the Republican official replied: “There’s a lot of women running across the country. Leslie is different in that typically a woman like that makes it through the primary and . . . they tend to wedge toward the middle a little bit quietly, but she’s not doing that. I don’t think she’s interested in doing that. I think she is who she is, and you can’t blame her for that.
“It’s refreshing in politics,” the woman admitted. “She is all for her own convictions and she’s not going to back away from what she stood for. And while good for her, that’s going to be tough for this district, because it is a Republican district.”
Cockburn is banking on as many Republican crossover voters as she can get in November’s general election, especially people like her who, regardless of political party, are concerned with the direction President Trump is steering the country.
The Republican acknowledged that the NRCC will be watching for any party unease with all of its races around the country, but there is some concern.
“Yes, definitely,” she said of potential Trump blowback. “I think we’re in uncharted territory right now.”
Cockburn has said it was Trump’s 2016 victory that propelled her into the campaign in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Democrat opened her first campaign office in Warrenton last evening, with other offices to come “all over Virginia’s 5th district.”
As for Cockburn’s new opponent, a short-lived gubernatorial candidate in the previous election, the GOP operative said of Riggleman: “I think he’s going to be much different than a Tom Garrett-type candidate. I don’t think anybody is going to have an issue of not hearing from him or seeing him at forums and things like that” (something Garrett was criticized for by Democrats and Republicans alike).
“I think it’s going to be a very local campaign,” she said. “Obviously, he’s from here, he’s a business owner in the district, and I think that’s the area [Charlottesville] where the [vote] spread is going to matter the most. He’s got a team around him . . . he’s got lots of fans and lots of people around him.”
One being Jimmy Keady, Garrett’s former chief of staff, who has joined Riggleman’s campaign as a general consultant.