Face-to-face, Mike Dickinson works hard to project the image of a serious political candidate. His hair is carefully slicked back, his handshake is firm and a pin bearing both Virginia and American flags rests on his lapel.
But the reaction to Dickinson's quixotic campaign for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's seat, run almost exclusively on social media, has been anything but taken seriously.
He seems to delight in stirring things up with an argumentative approach on Twitter. When a user named ConsrvativeDiva writes, "I'm offended," he replies: "Good. If you're truly a conservative diva you have crap for brains anyway."
Slate has dubbed Dickinson the Democratic Todd Akin, a nod to the Republican congressman who drew fire for using the term "legitimate rape."
Dickinson thrives on criticism. "Whether people love me or hate me," he says, "they'll be talking about the issues I care about."
He recently made national headlines and received death threats after offering a $100,000 bounty on nude pictures of Kendall Jones, a young conservative who's made waves by posting pictures of herself on Facebook with animals she killed while on safari.
Dickinson is against hunting, he says, and whatever attention he draws is good for the campaign.
Cantor's unexpected defeat in the Republican primary last month has attracted a national spotlight, opened the door to candidates seemingly unprepared for the focus and attracted a wave of folks seeking untraditional ways into the ballot box.
It's the perfect opportunity for a political circus, says Brian Turner, a professor and chairman of the political science department at Randolph-Macon College. He says the names of the write-ins will be more important than their platforms.
"I don't know what their specific positions are," Turner says, "but it's an opportunity to attract attention."
Before fellow Randolph-Macon professor Dave Brat's defeat of Cantor to become the Republican candidate, Dickinson and Libertarian candidate James Carr appeared to be the only people eager to run against Cantor. After Brat's victory, candidates scrambled.
Democrats had put forward Jack Trammell, another Randolph-Macon professor. And last week, former reality television star and Front Royal resident Tareq Salahi — known as the White House dinner crasher with his now ex-wife — announced his intention to run in Style Weekly. Despite his claim of how many signatures he'd submitted, he failed to qualify for ballot status. He says he's running as a write-in.
Dickinson has run up against roadblocks too. Despite his stand that he's the only true Democrat in the race, party leaders want voters to forget he exists.
"He is an unfortunate, delusional individual who is looking for attention," says Abbi Easter, the Democratic Party chairwoman of the 7th District. "It's an unfortunate quirk of the Internet."
Dickinson is a 34-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, a former Hustler contributor and strip-club owner who lives in Richmond. His platform, built around what appears to be a reverence for First Amendment crusader and Hustler magazine owner Larry Flynt, didn't win many fans the first time around.
In February, Dickinson says, he arrived at a meeting of the Chesterfield Democrats expecting to talk about his "Elizabeth Warren-style" leanings on such issues as immigration and corporate taxation. But leaders came with questions about the strip club he owns in Emporia, Kan., purchased from Stripclubs4sale.com.
Both sides agree it did not go well. County Chairman Elizabeth Hardin says he ended up insulting the group after members questioned why he thought he was viable candidate.
"It was a train wreck," Hardin says. "Let's just say we were very troubled. But we gave him a fair opportunity and we expressed our concerns."
In April, Dickinson went on Fox News to trash Cantor while being listed as the Democratic candidate. Emails from Hardin to Fox clarifying his status made no difference, and she continues to email any outlet that misreports him as the Democratic nominee.
Since June, Dickinson has accepted Trammell as the Democratic nominee, painting him as the party's yes man.
"He is gonna run the kind of race they want — quiet, mild-mannered," Dickinson says of Trammell. "If you look at the issues he's running on, he's not taking hard stances on gun control, the Affordable Care Act, abortion."
As for Dickinson's stances?
"Pretty clear," he responds. "If you read Twitter, I take a stance on them every day" at @votemike2014.
But don't expect to see him expanding on his opinions in any debates. Trammell and Brat have been silent on his candidacy. The Libertarian, Carr, doesn't consider him a serious candidate, and doesn't want to see him treated as one.
"Absolutely not," Carr says. "Anyone who qualifies for the ballot, I'd say that's appropriate. I put in six months of door-to-door work."
While he let his candidacy lapse, Dickinson tells Style that he's ready to relaunch as an independent aggressive-progressive candidate. With about $4,000 remaining in his campaign account, he says he'll continue his fight for the same left-wing, free-speech ideals he hoped to defeat Cantor with. His campaign will be heavy on social media and light on traditional strategies, such as attempting to get on the ballot.
"If people want to give me a vote they're going to write me in," he says. "It's not a hard name to spell."