Editorial: 5th District Republicans repudiate Riggleman -- and Reagan

Editorial: 5th District Republicans repudiate Riggleman -- and Reagan

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The Roanoke Times

Denver Riggleman will be a one-term congressman.

History will condense his inability to win renomination by 5th District Republicans to a single line: He officiated a wedding — a perfectly lawful wedding that many conservative activists in the district found morally objectionable.

History, if it’s kind, may add a second line — that those same conservative activists designed a nomination method intended to limit participation to the fewest number of people possible, and succeeded.

All that’s true, but not necessarily the full truth. The fuller truth goes like this: Saturday in the 5th District we witnessed the transformation of the Republican Party. What we saw Saturday was not the party of Reagan, as Republicans have liked to call themselves over the past decades, and certainly not the party of Lincoln as Republicans once liked to style themselves before that. It would be too facile to call this the party of Trump, because President Donald Trump is only the beneficiary, not necessarily the driving cause, of this transformation.

Bob Good, the former Campbell County supervisor and Liberty University athletic administrator who defeated Riggleman, complained that Riggleman was “out of touch with the conservative base of this district.” Saturday’s vote showed Good was right. The question, though, is not why Riggleman was out of touch with that conservative base but why that so-called conservative base is out of touch with its own party’s heritage.

The same-sex marriage that Riggleman officiated may have crystallized opposition to him, but the bigger policy difference that Good ran on was immigration. Good presents himself as an immigration hard-liner, which is certainly true, but he goes beyond simply having a more restrictive view of how many immigrants the nation should accept each year. What sets Good apart is how he wants to redefine the definition of American citizenship and “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues,” views that put him out-of-step with the values that have prevailed throughout American history.

Good often says he believes in “the Judeo-Christian principles our country was founded on.” Yet one of the principles this country was founded on was that immigration is fundamental to the American experience — and keep in mind that back then there were really no laws on immigration. Immigrants simply showed up.

Good’s views on immigration — and those who share them — do not spring from the nation’s founding principles, nor do they spring from the Republican Party. It wasn’t that long ago that Republican consultant Karl Rove authored a critically-acclaimed book about William McKinley and how he shaped the Republican Party. McKinley was pro-business and strong on defense, two things we recognize as signature features of Republicans today. But McKinley was also pro-immigration and spent much of the 1896 campaign reaching out to newly-arrived ethnic groups.

Good’s views on immigration are likewise completely foreign to the Republican Party that Ronald Reagan redefined in his image in the 1980s. Reagan was decidedly pro-immigration in ways that would be unfathomable for the party that nominated Good. We think of the phrase “make America great again” as Trump’s slogan, but it was a phrase Reagan uttered — several times — in a major campaign speech in 1980, one that he delivered with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Reagan was especially sympathetic to one type of immigrant — refugees. Reagan admitted more refugees to the United States than any president has since. Even in his lowest year, he admitted more than twice as many refugees as Trump allowed in last year — and thousands more than Barack Obama did at his highest point. At Reagan’s highest point, he allowed in more than five times as many refugees as Trump did last year.

Reagan devoted his final speech as president to the importance of immigration: “This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

In nominating Good, 5th District Republicans have emphatically repudiated Reagan. Instead, they have channeled another strain of American history — the nativist views of the Know-Nothing Party that tried to shut down virtually all immigration in the 1850s. Irony: Virginia played a decisive role — in the 1855 governor’s race — in blocking the spread of Know-Nothingism. Now, Virginia Republicans — at least in the 5th District — enable its modern variant.

Good frets that too much immigration is bad for conservatives because first-generation voters will vote Democratic. Yet once again he is at odds with American history, even relatively recent American history. Asian Americans were once mostly Republican voters — that’s why many Democrats opposed statehood for Hawaii. It wasn’t until the 2000s that most Asian Americans voted for a Democratic candidate for president. Arab Americans also were strongly Republican — until the 2000s. Cuban Americans in Florida remain primarily Republican voters, although a study by the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale shows that support has been softening in recent years. What changed? Well, for one thing, some in the Republican Party have responded to the nation’s changing demography by doing exactly the wrong thing. They have abandoned the pro-immigration heritage of McKinley and Reagan and substituted the hardline views of Trump and now Good.

Will this hurt the party? Probably not in the 5th District. Good’s fringe views mean Republicans will have to work harder to win that district than they should but the district is red enough that he’ll probably win over anyone the Democrats nominate unless there’s a full-scale Joe Biden landslide in November. But is this the model the party can use to win nationally in the years to come? McKinley knew the answer in 1896 and Reagan knew it in the 1980s; do Republicans today?

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