Outrunning Bellwethers and Coattails in a Swing State

Freshman Republican Barbara Comstock faces a unique reelection challenge in Northern Virginia.

GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock speaks at her Election Night party Nov. 4, 2014 in Ashburn, Va. Comstock defeated Democrat John Foust in Virginia's 10th District.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Feb. 1, 2016, 8 p.m.

Rep. Barbara Comstock’s Northern Virginia-based seat is home to a rare breed: swing voters in a swing district in a swing state.

And by November, they’ll be among the most targeted in the presidential race.

The divided politics of the 10th District make it a true bellwether battleground, inviting outsize attention and resources from both parties. As the first-term Republican faces a challenge from Democrat LuAnn Bennett, those top-of-the-ticket dynamics could have substantial bearing on her reelection.

“Comstock is not just battling Bennett here,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who’s been active in Virginia politics. “Comstock is battling the Democratic plan to win the state of Virginia.”

Comstock’s district includes Loudoun and Prince William counties, two jurisdictions whose election results tend to mirror the outcome of statewide races. Emboldened by recent demographic trends that have turned Northern Virginia more Democratic, the party sees this presidential cycle as its best shot to unseat the first-term Comstock.

The freshman Republican won the open seat in 2014 by a wide margin, even as Democrats predicted a competitive race at the outset. This cycle, the party expects to be buoyed by heavier turnout in the area, known for its independent voting streak and pricey D.C. media market.

“This seat,” Virginia-based Democratic strategist Ellen Qualls said, “is essentially the swingiest district in the swingiest state.”

In Bennett, a real-estate executive and prominent political donor, Democrats see a particularly strong challenger. In the first three weeks of her campaign, Bennett collected $281,000, an impressive sum for a first-time candidate. But Comstock, who’s known as a tireless campaigner, will be difficult to dislodge: She banked $527,000 in the last three months of 2015 and $2 million overall this election cycle.

Comstock has also prioritized regional concerns while in office, in the mold of her predecessor, Rep. Frank Wolf, who held the seat for more than three decades. On two top issues for her district, regional transportation and pay for federal employees, Comstock has readily bucked her party.

“I’ve been a top target every time I’ve run,” Comstock, a former state House delegate and Wolf aide, said in an interview. “I’m always focused on my constituents and the priorities of my district.”

The 10th covers a diverse region, home to many federal workers and contractors, as well as a sizable immigrant population. In 2008, voters there narrowly supported President Obama, even as they elected Wolf by nearly 59 percent. Four years later, Mitt Romney carried the district by 4,000 votes as Obama won statewide.

Now, Democrats in Northern Virginia see the tide swinging back in their favor, as Hillary Clinton, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, builds a political operation in the state. Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, managed the 2013 campaign of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who’s also a strong Clinton backer.

“I do think that there will be a lot of money spent registering Democratic voters and turning out voters,” said Bennett, a Clinton supporter. “And I will benefit from a lot of that.”

Democrats are encouraged by the results of statewide and local races last year, when Republicans lost two state House seats in Loudoun and Prince William counties, and three Republicans fell short in supervisor races in Loudoun.

But Comstock, who’s backing Marco Rubio in the presidential race, has proven that she can surpass the top of her party's ticket.

In 2014, for example, she outran GOP Senate candidate Ed Gillespie in Loudoun, trouncing her Democratic opponent there by 11 points. In 2013, in her state House race, she outran GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli in that county, netting nearly 51 percent to his 45 percent.

“On the presidential level, if you win Loudoun and you win Prince William, you win the state of Virginia,” said Dan Scandling, a longtime aide to Wolf. “But it doesn’t apply as much to the 10th because Barbara is going to win Loudoun. She’s already laid the groundwork.”

Democrats contend that Comstock is too conservative for a moderate district, pointing to her votes against a major transportation bill when she was in the state House and support for antiabortion measures. Last week, EMILY’s List, which supports abortion rights, announced that it is backing Bennett, potentially delivering a boost to the Democrat’s fundraising.

Bennett could tap into her own coffers as well, saying that she would invest her own money “if it becomes necessary.” She declined to speculate on how much she would spend out of pocket, maintaining she will have the donor support she needs.

The real-estate executive could also benefit from the political network of her ex-husband, former Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, whom she called a close friend.

In an interview with National Journal, Moran stressed that Bennett was running her own campaign but said he would lend a hand if “there are issues or opportunities where I might be helpful.”

Republicans are prepared to strike back. The National Republican Congressional Committee has placed Comstock on a list of vulnerable incumbents who will receive fundraising support, and it is already attempting to attack Bennett as a carpetbagger. Bennett counters that she lived in the 10th for 32 of the last 35 years until redistricting ahead of the 2012 elections. She moved within the new lines in December, the same month she entered the race.

In 2014, Democrats thought they had a competitive candidate in Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, but his campaign was badly damaged when he said that Comstock—a former congressional aide, lobbyist, and Justice Department spokeswoman—never held a “real job.”

A month before the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled its money out of the race, and Comstock glided to victory by a 17-point margin.

Republicans, O’Connell said, “have a large problem in Northern Virginia. But if they have anything to hang their hat on, it’s Comstock.”

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