One Dem hopeful in Virginia won’t stop talking about Trump — another barely mentions him

One Dem hopeful in Virginia won’t stop talking about Trump — another barely mentions him
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CENTREVILLE, Va. — Democrat Jennifer Wexton can’t stop talking about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE.

Wexton’s TV ad playing on repeat in the D.C. media market calls two-term Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect The Memo: Trump pours gas on tribalism with Jan. 6 rewrite MORE, her GOP opponent, “Barbara Trump-stock.” At their only debate, Wexton slammed the GOP tax cuts as the “Comstock-Trump tax scam.”

And in an interview here in this quiet Northern Virginia suburb 25 miles west of Washington, Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor, said it’d be impossible to campaign without invoking what she sees as the president’s failed policies and unseemly rhetoric.        


“I’m not afraid to talk about Donald Trump because we can’t not talk about Donald Trump, especially in this district outside of Washington, D.C. We live it and we see it every day,” Wexton, 50, told The Hill during a campaign stop at the annual Centreville Day festival, where games, face-painting and food booths lined the streets of the town’s quaint historic district.  

Wexton’s approach stands in stark contrast to the strategy employed by Abigail Spanberger, another Democrat running for the House in a more conservative Virginia district just 30 miles south.

Wexton and Spanberger are both hoping to win back swing districts from Republicans, and their victories would edge their party closer toward an elusive House majority.

But while Wexton can’t stop talking about the president, Spanberger barely acknowledges him on the campaign trail.

In fact, Spanberger didn’t utter Trump’s name once during a debate last week with her opponent, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a leading conservative and staunch Trump ally.    

The different approaches show how Democratic candidates across the country — from Virginia and New Jersey to California — are having to take different tacks on Trump in a midterm election serving as a referendum on the provocative president.

Spanberger, 39, a former CIA agent, hasn’t been critical of Trump because he still enjoys some popularity in the 7th Congressional District, which include some rural stretches of central Virginia as well as the suburbs north, west and south of Richmond. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE in the district by more than 6 points in 2016, and he just publicly endorsed Brat, 54, one of the leaders of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus.

But Trump is enormously unpopular in Virginia's 10th District, which takes in many of northern Virginia’s well-educated and affluent suburbs outside D.C., including Chantilly, Leesburg and parts of McLean.  Although it’s been represented by a Republican for nearly 40 years, the district has been growing more diverse and Democratic in recent years. Two years ago, Clinton trounced Trump there by 10 points, a huge margin for a traditional swing district.     

‘Barbara Trump-stock’

Trump’s sagging numbers here are the central reason Wexton has been trying desperately to tie Comstock to Trump, to almost superimpose his image onto hers.      

In Wexton’s most memorable ad, a narrator says: “Barbara Comstock might as well be Barbara Trump-stock,” adding that she votes with “Trump 98 percent of the time." The 30-second spot ends with Wexton riding in a truck carrying a billboard reading: “Mr. President, change is coming.” The truck drives right in front of the White House.

Wexton’s approach to Trump may be an effective strategy. Chantilly resident Liz Deal voted for Comstock in the past two elections and called her a “strong candidate,” but said she’s she’d be voting Democratic next month.

“I think [Trump’s] been allowed to get away with things other presidents haven’t, and I think there needs to be more checks and balances,” said Deal, 53, an eighth-grade civics teacher.

“I think there is a lot of fear in his own party and good people aren’t standing up to him. … Right now, I see the legislative branch going along with everything coming out of the executive branch and that’s not the way the Constitution was written,” she said.

Trump’s harsh language and rhetoric, particularly about women, has also alienated college-educated, suburban women — a demographic Democrats are targeting as they seek to win over voters such as Deal.

Comstock, 59, a Washington insider who’s worked on the Hill and in the George W. Bush administration, has largely avoided criticizing the president’s tweets and controversial comments. And she’s made her vote for the Trump tax cuts a central campaign issue.

But Comstock broke with Trump and her party on repealing ObamaCare last year and she personally urged the president during a televised White House meeting not to shut down the government over immigration. Thousands of federal workers and government contractors live in her district.    

“I’m my own woman,” Comstock told CNN in a recent interview. “And I’ve worked with a Republican governor and now a Democrat governor, a Democrat president and now a Republican president.”

Comstock did not attend the Centreville Day festival, though local Republican officials were passing out Comstock yard signs at a booth. Instead, Comstock appeared at a private meet-and-greet with Republican voters at a nearby home.

In a statement, Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer called Wexton “a partisan” and “No. 1 liberal in the state Senate in Virginia” who will vote in lockstep with Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight On The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House sets up Senate shutdown showdown MORE (D-Calif.) to raise taxes and impede economic growth.

“Wexton is a follower, not a leader,” Falconer said.

One GOP official in the district said Wexton’s Trump-themed attacks have been effective. They have forced Comstock to distance herself from the president, infuriating Trump loyalists whose support Comstock also needs to assemble a winning coalition.

“Wexton wants to divide and conquer” conservative voters, the GOP official said. “Strategically, it’s a clever move.”

Trump plays key role

Though he’s not on the Nov. 6 ballot, Trump is also playing a key role in other House races where Clinton outperformed him. At a recent New Jersey debate, Democrat Tom Malinowski scolded incumbent GOP Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceKean Jr. to run against Malinowski: report Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races MORE for saying both Trump and Democratic leaders should be more civil: “There are not Democratic leaders who are calling women ‘horseface,’ ” Malinowski said.

In California’s Orange County, the Democratic House Majority PAC is up with an ad featuring a man singing the song “99 bottles of beer” and the faces of Trump and GOP Rep. Mimi Walters on the bottles.

“Mimi Walters, she’s 99 percent Trump,” the narrator says.

Clinton beat Trump by 5 points in California’s 45th District, where Democrat Katie Porter has been slamming Walters for her pro-Trump votes. 

Even in the tight race to replace retiring GOP Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE in Wisconsin’s 1st District, Democratic ironworker Randy Bryce has had no qualms about attacking Trump even though the district overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016.

“Donald Trump's biggest legislative achievement was to give himself a tax cut,” tweeted Bryce, who goes by the nickname “IronStache.”

Those comments, ads and tweets come as Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have been urging their candidates to stick with issues like health care and the GOP tax cuts on the campaign trail instead of Trump. When Democrats rolled out their 2018 campaign agenda last year in Berryville, Va. — in the heart of Comstock’s district — their 12-page messaging document didn’t mention his name.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who heads the Democrats’ campaign operation, says he understands why some candidates in blue-tinged swing districts are talking about the president. He just thinks they don’t need to.

“I say it everywhere I go: I don’t think we need to talk about the president. He’s going to do it for us,” Luján said during a Bloomberg event this month.

Heeding the message

Spanberger, the political newcomer challenging Brat, is one of the few heeding that message. She didn’t mention Trump’s name once during an hour-and-a-half debate in Culpeper a week ago. Brat invoked the name “Nancy Pelosi” more than 20 times, telling voters a vote for Spanberger would be a vote for Pelosi’s liberal agenda.

In a text message exchange, Brat said he found it laughable that Spanberger has largely refused to talk about Trump, and in one instance, has even said she will work with “the president.”

“Ask her if she will vote to impeach Trump and Kavanaugh. She has no policy platform except for the Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda,” Brat told The Hill.  

Spanberger spokesman Justin Jones responded that Spanberger  “would not vote for impeachment of anyone without evidence.”

 “Congressman Brat will do anything to make voters think this isn’t a race between him and Abigail Spanberger,” Jones said. “The president is no more on the ballot in this district than some other Democrat is — no matter how much Congressman Brat repeats himself to try to make it so. Voters have seen that Abigail is ready to put country over party and work with anyone, including the president, when it’s good for Virginia.”

Democrat Elaine Luria, who is trying to unseat freshman GOP Rep. Scott TaylorScott William TaylorThe US counts on Qatar to look out for its interests in the Middle East Education blunder igniting suburban parents driving McAuliffe panic in Virginia Elaine Luria endorses McAuliffe for governor in Virginia Democratic primary MORE in a coastal district that includes Virginia Beach, also has not featured Trump prominently on the campaign trail or in ads. Trump carried Virginia’s 2nd District by 3 percentage points in 2016.    

But back at the Centreville Day celebration, Wexton said she’s unapologetic about discussing Trump because he’s what’s driving people to vote and get involved.

“Donald Trump’s election and everything he has done since then has motivated a lot of people not just to run, but to get involved in the political process and to get outside their comfort zone, whether it be canvassing or making phone calls or going to political fundraisers,” Wexton said.

“A lot of people have come to realize that democracy is more fragile than we ever wanted to admit, and they need to take action in order to change what is happening in Washington.”

Mike Lillis contributed to this report.