In just over two years in Congress, Republican Scott Rigell of Virginia has piqued conservatives by voting to raise the debt ceiling, disavowing an anti-tax pledge, and partnering with Democrats on gun control legislation. He was one of only two Republicans last year to oppose holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt.
But the proverbial straw broke the tea party’s back on Wednesday, when Rigell joined President Obama at a major shipbuilder near his southeastern Virginia district that would be hurt by sweeping military cuts if Congress doesn’t reach a budget deal. President Obama, who called for reducing the deficit in part by raising taxes, thanked Rigell and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, whose district includes Newport News Shipbuilding, as “two outstanding congressmen who care about this facility, care about Virginia and care about this country.”
Rigell did not appear on stage with the president, but to some conservative activists, his attendance amounted to a betrayal.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion about Congressman Rigell and I think it’s much more likely he will face a primary challenge next year,” said Karen Miner Hurd, founder of the Hampton Roads Tea Party. “He, like many Republicans, are turning their backs on what got them elected in the first place.”
Grover Norquist, the national anti-tax crusader whose pledge Rigell no longer supports, called him out on Twitter as a “very cheap date” for flying with the president on Air Force One to the event. “He’s being used by the White House as a prop for tax increases,” Norquist said in a telephone interview.
For Rigell, one of only seven Republicans representing districts carried twice by President Obama, the backlash shows the challenge of trying to straddle the divide coursing through the GOP since the November election. While the tea party movement that swept Rigell and historic numbers of Republicans into office in 2010 is trying to hold the line on taxes, the Republican establishment is increasingly calling for less ideological approach to governing,
In an interview with National Journal after the event with the president, Rigell said that he viewed the White House’s invitation as an opportunity to make a case against the so-called sequester on behalf of his district, which is home to more active and military personnel than any other in the country.
“If I have the opportunity to look the president in the eye in his role as commander-in-chief…my responsibilities to my district compel me to do so,” Rigell said. “I didn’t accept the trip to get on Air Force One, and it’s not an endorsement of his plan. It was [an] opportunity to meet with president and show bipartisan support for the hardworking men and women of Newport News Shipbuilding.”
Rigell said he asked the president to offer alternative spending cuts and has been “disappointed” in his failure to do so. He also faulted his Republican colleagues for refusing any compromise that would include “even one dollar” of new revenue. “That is not a wise position,” he said. “How in the world can I face someone who works at Newport News Shipbuilding and rises at 5 a.m. with their lunchbox thinking they could be laid off and military readiness affected because of the dysfunction of this place?”
A new national survey by the Pew Research Center supports Rigell’s concerns that his party needs to rethink its approach to the budget and other issues. The poll found that 62% of the public sees the GOP as out of touch with the American people. Majorities also view the party as not open to change and too extreme.
The party’s shift rightward was one reason Steve LaTourette of Ohio -- the other Republican who sided with Rigell on the Holder vote -- left public office this year and took over a centrist group called the Main Street Partnership.
“I really admire Congressman Rigell because he’s willing to actually think about issues and respond in a thoughtful way, rather than the party line or a kneejerk way,” LaTourette said. “These votes are not popular with core members of the Republican base and it’s a fine line he has to walk.”
Virginia’s Second Congressional District is a particularly competitive battleground at a time when gerrymandering and partisan self-sorting have reduced the number of swing districts. It was represented throughout the 1990s by Owen Pickett, a Blue Dog Democrat known for working with Republicans to protect defense spending. The district swung back and forth over the following decade between the two parties. In 2010, Rigell was a successful car dealer and big Republican donor who had never run for office before. He won a crowded Republican primary with an endorsement from Gov. Bob McDonnell and went on to defeat Democrat Glenn Nye, elected just two years earlier in the Democratic wave that swept Barack Obama into the White House.
Rigell has backed the scaled-down budget promoted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and opposed the fiscal cliff deal sealed on New Year’s Day. But he crossed party leaders by voting to raise the debt ceiling, calling it the “best path forward with the options that we’re given here.”
In another attempt at nuance, Rigell opposes President Obama’s health care law but his staff says he stopped calling it “Obamacare” after a black pastor complained it was a pejorative term.
Scott, 52, has had relative success in appealing to African Americans, who make up about 20 percent of his district. His campaign estimated that he received 13 percent of the African American vote, more than twice as much as Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
Rigell is a co-founder of the Fix Congress Now Caucus, a congressional reform group that backed the “No Budget, No Pay” proposal to force members to pass a budget or forego a paycheck. Rigell has declined federal health care and pension benefits and, his website says, “will return more than $100,000 of his consecutive two-year salaries back to the U.S. Treasury.”
In February, Rigell wrote an open letter to his constituents saying that he would not renew his commitment to the anti-tax pledge. He argued that by precluding closing corporate loopholes and ending government subsidies, the pledge would allow the national debt to continue to escalate. “In practice," he said, "the pledge can work against the very goal we seek to advance."