WAYNESBORO, Va.—Denver Riggleman isn't enjoying his campaign against Leslie Cockburn. The first time Republican candidate, perhaps naïvely, thought his race against Cockburn in Virginia's 5th Congressional District would go a lot differently than it has.
"I really did think we'd have policy discussions," Riggleman said with a chuckle over breakfast at Weasie's Kitchen, a local spot near his Nelson County home where the specialty is bone-in ham with a side of eggs. "I thought I'd go up there and say, ‘Hey, here is my belief system, compare and contrast, we win.'"
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Riggleman found out he was wrong in July, when Cockburn accused him of being both a "white supremacist" and a "devotee of Big Foot erotica." The Big Foot accusation spread like wildfire across the internet, giving Riggleman a wake up call.
"She does not let the truth get in the way of her story," Riggleman said. "I never in my life thought there'd be somebody so willing to fabricate something out of pulled cloth just to win."
"It's difficult," he said. "I laugh when people say once you're in the public eye it's all fair game. It's usually people who have never been in the public eye. I will never again make fun of somebody I don't know based on a news article or a social media post."
Riggleman explained that it's especially tough on him because, win or lose on Tuesday, this is his community and his reputation matters for his business.
"That's what I found disturbing, by putting this stuff out there that was wholesale fabrication, she could hurt my business, my family. She made it personal right off the bat."
"My reputation is dearly important to me," he said. "She has four or five homes, she can go hide, but I have to work and live in this district."
Riggleman showed up to breakfast wearing jeans and a hoodie from Silverback Distillery, the nearby gin, vodka, and whisky shop he owns. He was born and raised in Virginia, joined the Air Force, and then attended the University of Virginia.
He views this as a big advantage over Cockburn, a former journalist who has treated Virginia's 5th more like a research project, telling The Intercept she spent three months investigating the district before announcing her run.
"I'm Virginian to the core," he said. "She lives in Georgetown and doesn't have a clue what's happening in the 5th district."
He thinks the media have left a lot of ground uncovered on his opponent.
"Her books are used by Stormfront and white anarchist groups to explain why the Jewish people are trying to take over," he said, referencing the anti-Semitic book Cockburn wrote with her British-born husband Andrew Cockburn. "That got less attention than jokes about Big Foot."
Riggleman read her book and said it was shocking. "She really believes that Israel has orchestrated a cabal to control U.S. foreign policy."
He described Cockburn as "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a scarf," saying she's run a far-left campaign calling for "Medicare for all, open borders, forgiveness of student debt, and free college."
Riggleman says the months he's spent running against Cockburn have been the most difficult of his life, and not because the rest of it has been easy.
"I've been in multiple combat missions, I've started a business from scratch, I've been close to bankruptcy. We almost didn't make it in my first company—we were without health insurance for three months just hoping our kids didn't get sick."
"I've been through some hard times, but this has been the roughest four and a half months of my life."
Less difficult than dealing with Cockburn's attempts of "character assassination," but still a challenge, has been behaving like a politician.
"I never thought I would talk like this," Riggleman said with a laugh as he touted his growing name recognition in the district.
"I am just a freaking dude, I'm still very uncomfortable driving around when I see my name on signs or in TV ads."
Riggleman thinks Cockburn's attempt to win the large district by running a far-left campaign will fail on Tuesday.
"I don't know how any 5th district voter would support her, I don't get it," he said. "There were a lot better candidates the Democratic Party could have chosen over Leslie Cockburn."
Win or lose, Riggleman says he plans to continue to put in shifts at Silverback, which is operated by his wife, who comes from a long line of liquor distillers. His daughter recently obtained a master's degree in "fermentation sciences" and has joined the operation.
He also says everybody will soon learn the truth about his now famous book on Big Foot, which will be released after the election.
"Once I release the Big Foot book, people will see it's not erotica, but it is hilarious," Riggleman said.