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After Officiating Same-Sex Wedding, Va. Congressman May Lose House Seat

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been almost five years since the Supreme Court guaranteed the right for same sex couples to marry. But the verdict still rankles some conservatives. And now in Virginia, one Republican congressman is in danger of losing his seat after he officiated a gay marriage. Ben Paviour, from member station VPM, has more from Richmond, where the state GOP convention is just days away.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Alex Pisciarino and Rek LeCounte's wedding day last July was hot, like 97 degrees hot. LeCounte is from Florida and knew what they were getting into.

REK LECOUNTE: We warned everybody to wear, like, seersucker and, you know, something - light fabric. And some folks didn't listen to us. And you could tell how they wish they had.

PAVIOUR: The wedding was officiated by Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman. The couple first volunteered for Riggleman's campaign after meeting some of his staffers at a Target. Pisciarino says the congressman brought up that first meeting during the ceremony.

ALEX PISCIARINO: And he said, like, the most shocking thing about it is, like, the way these guys dressed, I didn't think they shopped at Target...

LECOUNTE: (Laughter).

PISCIARINO: ...Which was hilarious.

PAVIOUR: The two Log Cabin Republicans felt at ease, personally and politically, with the libertarian-minded Riggleman. When they asked him to officiate, he agreed.

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: You know, I'd have been a coward if I didn't. I mean, the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln. We're the party of individual liberty.

PAVIOUR: But it's also the party whose 2016 platform called marriage between a man and a woman the foundation for a free society. In the months after the wedding, Riggleman was formally censured by three GOP county committees. Then in September, Bob Good announced he would challenge Riggleman for the nomination. The born-again Christian says he's on a mission to return what he calls Judeo-Christian values to Washington. Here he is attacking Riggleman at a campaign event in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB GOOD: He married a couple of gentlemen to make a statement, to make a political statement, show that he's a big-tent, tolerant, progressive, new kind of Republican.

PAVIOUR: But it's not just same-sex marriage. In a debate with Riggleman last month, Good painted his rival as a lefty in disguise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOOD: He's out of step with the base of the party on life. He's out of step on marriage. He's out of step on immigration. He's out of step on health care.

PAVIOUR: Riggleman points to endorsements from evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. and from President Trump as proof of his conservative credentials. He's out-fundraised Good 8 to 1. And yet...

KYLE KONDIK: Riggleman is in trouble.

PAVIOUR: Kyle Kondik is with UVA Center for Politics. He points out the nomination will be decided by a few thousand convention-goers in a district of more than 700,000 people.

KONDIK: It restricts the people who could participate to people who are, you know, involved Republican activists who are probably more conservative than even your average Republican primary voter.

PAVIOUR: Riggleman, who favors a more open primary, has attacked the convention process as corrupt. And Kondik says convention-goers may not end up choosing the most electable candidate.

KONDIK: They seem very caught up in this gay marriage issue when, I think, a lot of the country, even a lot of Republicans and conservatives, have moved on from it.

PAVIOUR: Kondik says Republicans already have an uphill battle retaking the House. If the GOP has to spend money here in a district that Trump won by 13 points, he thinks that climb could be even steeper. For the couple who kicked this all off, it's been a whirlwind year. Pisciarino says they got messages from strangers saying their wedding was...

PISCIARINO: Not conservative. It's dirty. You're sodomites...

LECOUNTE: (Laughter).

PISCIARINO: ...This, that and the other thing.

PAVIOUR: Well, LeCounte says they were also overwhelmed with messages of support. And they're more committed to reelecting Riggleman to prove a point.

LECOUNTE: You can support the freedom to marry, you can support LGBT equality and still be a staunch conservative and, you know - surprise, surprise - get elected and win elections.

PAVIOUR: Saturday's convention will put that theory to the test. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "ART IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.