The congressional race in Virginia’s 5th district is, by most accounts, too close to call. It’s a place where Republicans outnumber Democrats, but candidate Leslie Cockburn is giving her GOP opponent a run for his money.
As she arrived for a rally in Charlottesville last week, a crowd of supporters burst into applause and no wonder. Leslie Cockburn’s credentials appeal to many in this prosperous and sophisticated town. She grew up in San Francisco, was one of the first women to graduate from Yale and is a former producer at Sixty Minutes. She’s married to Andrew Cockburn, Washington Editor of Harpers magazine, owns a home in Georgetown, where she has entertained the likes of Mick Jagger, and her positions on the issues are those of a progressive, liberal Democrat. In short, you might expect that Cockburn would have trouble connecting with a largely rural, Republican district.
But state party chair Susan Swecker says Cockburn has earned strong support in the district which runs from the North Carolina border to Northern Virginia.
“Leslie’s put over 72,000 miles on her car, going all over this big district,” she says. “I’ve seen a surge of support everywhere I go.”
For one thing, she is a farmer – having lived full-time in Rappahannock County for 11 years. For another, Swecker says, Cockburn is the candidate who thinks healthcare is a human right.
“The fear of losing your healthcare, the fear that pre-existing conditions are going to be repealed. I mean people just want to get up in the morning and go to work knowing that if their child or spouse gets ill, they’ll be taken care of.”
She’s also the candidate who stands against Donald Trump – and that has won her support from some moderate Republicans like Ricky Armstrong, a high school teacher from Mecklenberg County.
“I voted for Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II the first time around, but by the time I got to the Iraq war I decided the Republican party -- they no longer believe in anything logical, sensible.”
Then there is the question of money. Her opponent has about $912,000. Cockburn collected more than $2.4 million – money raised in part by her daughter – film and TV star Olivia Wilde.
“When I told her I wanted to be an actress at a really young age, by 12 I was already noticing that this doesn’t happen to many people,” Wilde recalls. What if it’s impossible? She said, ‘Many, many people will tell you it’s impossible, and just look forward to proving them wrong.’”
Also campaigning for Cockburn, Wilde’s partner Jason Sudeikis, an alum of Saturday Night Live, who says his mother-in-law called her friend and show producer Lorne Michaels when she learned the relationship was getting serious.
“’Give me the straight dope on this guy. Is he good for my daughter?’ Lorne had my back, but I love that Mom did the recon.”
Cockburn has reached out to the black community – campaigning with civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis, and she’s won support from students at UVA, where activist Shannon Mooney says registration is up.
“We’ve had an insane amount of people register to vote. We’ve been doing this massive voter turnout push. We’ve registering people five days a week on grounds.”
Cockburn, she adds, is especially appealing to young women.
“Things got bad enough. We finally had to step in and say, ‘We’ll take it from here. We’ll fix it.’”
Polls show the race is extremely close, but Cockburn is making plans for her first day in Congress.
“We’re hiring buses, and we’ve already gotten permission to take the office door off the hinges + so that everybody can come,” she says.
Friday we’ll meet her opponent, Denver Riggleman, a former military man who runs a distillery in Nelson County and is equally confident of victory.
In the mean time, you can hear more of Leslie's positions on the issues as she talks with Hausman about her decision to trade a TV career for politics.