Vulnerable Republican keeps focus as Democrats highlight Trump

Vulnerable Republican keeps focus as Democrats highlight Trump
© Greg Nash

Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockClosing diversity gaps in patenting is essential to innovation economy Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction MORE contends the so-called election experts are dead wrong.

As some Republicans privately whisper that the Virginia Republican is toast this November, a defiant Comstock outlined in an interview how she plans to win a third term.

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She is clearly facing some major headwinds. Democrats Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE and Gov. Ralph Northam easily won her Northern Virginia district. Last year, Democrats flipped six GOP-held state delegate seats in her district. And Democrats believe the unpopular President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE will be an enormous albatross around the centrist lawmaker’s neck.

With Democrats trying to nationalize her race, Comstock is going local.

She’s meeting with manufacturers to tout the GOP tax cuts that she voted for. She’s praised the military budget increases in the just-passed omnibus as a win for defense contractors and Pentagon employees in her district, which is home to the CIA.

And Comstock has authored legislation to combat the opioid crisis and MS-13 gang problem that have sprouted in some Northern Virginia neighborhoods. When she encounters large potholes during her commute along the scenic George Washington Parkway, she reports them.

“I call them in myself,” she said.

Meanwhile, she portrays some of her well-funded Democratic opponents as carpetbaggers who are out of touch with the district and too liberal to represent it.

“I’ve been in the district for over 35 years. I’ve worked with every business sector and every school. I raised my children there,” Comstock, a mother of three, said in an interview just outside the Capitol. “Most [of the Democrats] haven’t been there but for a couple months; they are all fighting among themselves. Whoever [is the Democratic nominee], I’m the only candidate who has worked in this community for three decades.”

Democrats say it won’t really matter whom the party nominates on June 12: They predict an anti-Trump blue wave will wash over the country and Virginia’s 10th District, sweeping Comstock and many of her GOP colleagues out of office this fall.

Six Democrats are vying for the nomination. Jennifer Wexton, the establishment favorite, has perhaps the best name ID because of her two terms serving in the state Senate. But two former Obama administration officials — Alison Friedman and Lindsey Davis Stover — are raising significant amounts of money, which will be needed to boost their name recognition and run TV ads in the costly Washington, D.C., media market. Other candidates include Paul Pelletier, a former federal prosecutor, and Dan Helmer, an Army veteran.

Comstock pointed out that Friedman, an anti-human-trafficking activist and former State Department official, only moved to the district last year. Stover moved to McLean in 2010, while Wexton has lived in Leesburg for nearly two decades.

“It’s going to be a very competitive election,” said Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents a district neighboring Comstock’s. “We have six very good Democrats running in a competitive primary. There’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of candidate skills. And the central message among the six is: Who can best beat Barbara Comstock?”

“This is one of the most Democratic seats held by a Republican,” Beyer added. “On the other hand, everybody acknowledges Barbara Comstock is a good candidate. … The Democratic response will be, ‘Yeah, but she votes wrong most of the time.’ ”

On the campaign trail, Wexton said she frequently hears complaints from constituents about Comstock’s vote for the new GOP tax law. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act imposed a $10,000 cap on how much taxpayers could deduct from their state and local taxes (SALT), leading to higher taxes for wealthier districts like Virginia’s 10th.

“I find it hard to believe she is in touch with the district when she voted for the tax bill which slashed the SALT deduction which more families take advantage of here than the rest of the nation,” Wexton said in a phone interview. “That will be something that will hurt families in the district.”

Wexton, who has served in the state Senate since 2014, also said Comstock has not adequately stood up to Trump’s attacks on federal workers, from wage freezes to his attempts to make it easier to fire employees. And she knocked Comstock for failing to hold any public town hall events since she was elected to Congress.

“People are taking notice of that,” Wexton said.

Comstock has walked a fine line with Trump, who still remains popular among the conservative base, centered largely in the western part of her district. Last summer, her district went for Trump ally Corey Stewart over establishment favorite Ed Gillespie in Virginia’s gubernatorial GOP primary. And west of Leesburg, Trump signs are still a common sight even 18 months after the election.

In 2017, the congresswoman voted against Trump’s ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill but was a vocal advocate for the president’s tax-cuts package. And unlike other vulnerable Republicans, Comstock has not been shy about appearing with Trump at White House bill signings, photo opportunities and meetings.

Last year, Comstock joined first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMelania Trump's office pushes back on Omarosa claims Omarosa book: Melania uses her fashion choices to ‘punish’ Trump Melania Trump family immigration lawyer praises so-called chain migration MORE and first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpPavlich: Ivanka Trump’s quiet success Poll: Majority of Republicans agree media is 'enemy of the people' White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE in the Oval Office as the president signed Comstock's bill, the INSPIRE Women Act, which encourages women and girls to study math and science as well as pursue aerospace careers. 

At a televised White House event on immigration, however, Comstock called the president out to his face. When Trump threatened to shut down the government to get more resources to fight MS-13 gangs, Comstock quickly interjected.

“We don’t need a government shutdown on this,” she told the president. “I think both sides have learned that a government shutdown was bad; it wasn’t good for them.”

Given the thousands of federal workers who live in her district, standing up to the president at that moment was a “clever move,” Beyer said.  

Virginia’s 10th District includes both highly educated and affluent suburbs and rural farmland, a technology corridor and defense industry, Dulles International Airport, hospitals and Shenandoah University in Winchester. Situated just across the river from Washington, D.C., it is a district that relies very much on the nation’s capital; many of Comstock’s constituents are federal workers, defense workers, lobbyists, political strategists and administration officials.

That, in part, explains why voters in this purplish district elected someone very familiar with Washington in 2014, when other areas were choosing outsiders. Comstock, 58, started out in the early 1990s as an aide to then-Rep. Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfVulnerable Republican keeps focus as Democrats highlight Trump Bolton could be the first national security chief to prioritize religious freedom House votes to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff MORE (R-Va.), the man she would later replace in Congress after his retirement. Later, she served as a staffer on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, investigating “Travelgate” and other Clinton administration scandals. Other stops included the 2000 Bush/Cheney campaign, the Justice Department and the 2012 Romney/Ryan campaign.

In between stints in government, she worked on K Street, lobbying for Koch Industries and Carnival Cruise Lines. Before coming to Congress, she served in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Friedman, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, isn’t focusing on Comstock’s lengthy record in Washington. Instead, Friedman is talking about a national issue that gripped the country following the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — gun control.
This week, Friedman became the first of the six Democratic challengers to go on air with a TV ad, bashing Comstock’s “A-plus” rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). A New York Times analysis found that Comstock was one of the top recipients of NRA money in Congress, receiving $137,232.
“We can stand up to the NRA and make our schools safer by expanding background checks, closing gun show loopholes and banning assault weapons,” Friedman says in the ad titled “Lockdown.” Comstock “sold our kids’ safety to the NRA.”

Comstock enjoys a fundraising advantage over all her potential Democratic challengers with more than $1.8 million cash on hand. Friedman has $817,000 cash on hand while the Northam-backed Wexton has $631,000.

– Mike Lillis contributed.

Updated: 10 a.m.