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Notebook Politics

The purple line

Comstock heads to a closed-door strategy session at the U.S. Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Politics

The purple line

Can GOP House incumbent Barbara Comstock overcome demographic destiny?

Barbara Comstock, the GOP incumbent in Virginia’s District 10, is supposedly as vulnerable as a hot dog dangling from the hand of a 4-year-old surrounded by dachshunds.

The district stretches 70 miles from the deep blue suburbs near Washington west to the bright red apple orchards of Frederick County—and Democrats want to make it one of the 24 seats needed to win back the U.S. House. The question is whether Comstock can, like her predecessor Frank Wolf, tiptoe the line between the GOP’s conservative base and the district’s increasingly liberal-leaning voters, a task even more difficult than usual in the Donald Trump era.

Republican Wolf won the 10th in a 1980 upset and kept it for 34 years through hard work and savvy political positioning. He showed up to chicken dinner fundraisers, looked after his constituents, and focused on issues that endeared him to conservatives but seldom antagonized moderates or Democrats. When he retired in 2014, WORLD named him Daniel of the Year for his efforts promoting international religious freedom.

Then Comstock took over. Her margins of victory shrank from 16 points in 2014 to six in 2016, but that was an impressive win given that the district went for Hillary Clinton by 10. In Virginia’s 2017 state elections voters in the 10th wiped out the GOP, flipping several state House seats to the Democrats. Analysts noted that the district’s wealthy areas near Washington, packed with traditionally Democratic voters like government workers and union employees, are growing much faster than the rural areas that reelected Wolf for decades.

And yet, turnout at the Loudoun County Republican Committee’s Spring Jamboree in Purcellville last April was the largest in years. The line for BBQ pork sandwiches looped around the community hall as a live band blared oldies rock and kids played cornhole. Comstock was there early, working the line with an easy smile. The queue snaked out the door and down the sidewalk where her primary opponent, retired Air Force Capt. Shak Hill, was handing out stickers.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Comstock greets constituents at a parade in Haymarket, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On paper the primary, at the time still two months away, was no contest. Comstock is a two-term incumbent known for her relentless work ethic, organizational talent, and fundraising chops: In campaign season she attends five or six events daily. The Georgetown-educated lawyer started in Washington as a Wolf staffer, became a feared GOP opposition researcher in the Clinton years, and was a rising star in the Virginia state Legislature. Vice President Mike Pence, the NRA, and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List all endorse her. She has never lost an election. She supported the federal tax cuts.

But Hill, an ex-fighter pilot, financial planner, and foster dad who ran on a pro-family, pro-Trump “America First” agenda that included a crackdown on illegal immigration, ran a tough race. Comstock endorsed a website, “ShadyShak.com,” that mocked Hill as “creepy” and made unsavory allegations. Comstock won the June primary, but Hill’s outraged supporters made up 38 percent of the vote, raising questions about how many will turn out for Comstock in the midterm.

Some of those pro-Trump, pro-Hill folks have wondered for years whether Comstock is really that conservative. She has voted with Trump over 90 percent of the time, but critics point to a couple of key votes this term: one against repealing Obamacare and another against a ban on the military funding transgender surgery and hormone therapy. She declined WORLD’s repeated interview requests.

Comstock has also pointedly distanced herself from Trump, in 2016 calling his statements on the Access Hollywood tapes “disgusting, vile, and disqualifying.” Twice this year she pushed back publicly against Trump’s threat of a government shutdown over budget negotiations. The issues page on her website discusses national security, tax relief, sex trafficking, transportation (traffic in the D.C. area is horrible), and her pro-business efforts, but doesn’t mention abortion or religious liberty.

Comstock seems more at home with GOP moderates, said Loudoun resident and conservative activist Patricia Phillips. “I hope she wins,” Phillips said, “but I hear from a lot of people who are very frustrated and disappointed.” Some think that the only way to get a truly conservative representative is to let a Democrat win now and then start fresh in the next cycle, she said, but many “will probably come around” by Election Day.

The “Trump effect” on a given race is hard to pin down. Trump’s unpopularity is a drag on conservative turnout and energizes Democrats, according to conventional wisdom, but Democrats face the mirror image of that problem in the “resistance” movement. Since 2016 the party has debated whether to follow Bernie Sanders and progressives toward single-payer healthcare and a radical social agenda or focus on economic issues to appeal to independents and Trump-voting Democrats.

Although a few Democratic primary winners have gained national attention for their far-left positions—see democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York—many more are like Comstock’s opponent, Jennifer Wexton. The Leesburg lawyer and sitting state senator supports LGBTQ priorities and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but she stops short of calling for a socialized medical system. She easily defeated a crowded field of resistance candidates, and in October a New York Times/Siena College poll put her about 7 points ahead of Comstock.