Virginia state Del. Barbara Comstock won the Republican nomination Saturday in the race for retiring Rep. Frank Wolf's battleground district, giving the local and national GOP a rare opportunity: the chance to add a high-powered woman to its federal ranks.
Virginia, which has 11 seats in the House of Representatives, hasn't sent a woman to Congress since 2008, and it's one of the states that has never even had a female senator. There are only 19 women Republicans in the House, comprising less than 10 percent of the GOP conference. Having cleared the first hurdle of her campaign easily, Comstock has the opportunity to shift some of those trends.
A former Wolf aide, Comstock has been seen as the GOP favorite since entering the race, and she received nearly 54 percent of the nominating vote, according to unofficial results from the district Republican party. State Del. Bob Marshall received 28 percent, Navy veteran Howie Lind received 8 percent, political consultant Stephen Hollingshead received 6 percent, congressional aide Rob Wasinger received 2 percent, and National Trade Association Executive Marc Savitt received less than 2 percent.
Comstock's wide margin of victory, combined with her fundraising ability and her status as an experienced female lawmaker, give local Republicans the sense that she could hold the changing seat for a long time and attract national attention while doing so. Comstock worked for the Republican National Committee as an opposition researcher, and for the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, who endorsed her in the primary race. She raised $761,000 in the first three months of the year.
Fairfax County Republican Party Chairman Matt Ames, who endorsed Comstock even though the county party usually does not take sides, said Comstock's fundraising numbers show she can rally support from Republicans around the country.
"The kinds of people who are writing her checks aren't just writing her checks just because she's a Republican or just because she worked for them in the past," Ames said. "They're seeing somebody who has a future, not just winning this race, but long-term."
"Upper middle-class women really respond well to Barbara," Ames said. "I mean, she's smart, she's driven, she's hard-working, she's successful. I think a lot of them see themselves in her."
Comstock's opponents tried, without much success, to turn her experience in Washington against her during an April 9 debate. They called her an "establishment Republican," said she was too moderate, and criticized her for voting for President Obama in the 2008 primary election — a decision Comstock said was part of Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos," although that plan called for Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary. (Plus, Limbaugh announced it after the Virginia vote had already taken place.)
Another touted female GOP favorite with an establishment reputation, Florida state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, also had the opportunity recently to add to the ranks of Republican women in Congress, but she fell in a special primary election to a self-funding millionaire running as a tea party-endorsed "outsider." Comstock, easily the best-funded Republican in her district, faced no such struggle.
"This whole outsider-insider thing is greatly exaggerated and overblown in a lot of places," Comstock consultant Ray Allen said on Saturday. "Saying I'm an outsider is not a message. It doesn't tell anybody what you're going to do when you're elected. And we've had our fair share of that around here — it just doesn't seem to be catching on at all."
It helped that Comstock had more conservative bona fides than most so-called moderate Republicans. She received endorsements from conservative figures like Sean Hannity and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in addition to support from Republicans like Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Winning the primary was only the beginning for Comstock. She now has to win a likely hard-fought, expensive general election in a tightly divided district where the likely Democratic nominee, Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, will also be well-funded. If Comstock is to add to the ranks of Republican women in Congress, she has more steps yet to climb.
Correction: The original version of this article gave an incorrect first name for Fairfax County GOP chairman Matt Ames.