Democrats Hope Trump Can Hand Them GOP Districts Like This One

  • Virginia Republican Comstock rejected Trump only after tape
  • Bennett aims to be district’s first Democrat since 1980

Democrat LuAnn Bennett thinks the Reagan Revolution is waning in northern Virginia -- and she hopes Donald Trump will kill it off.

In a congressional district that includes the wealthiest county in the U.S., Bennett is waging an uphill battle against first-term Republican Barbara Comstock to win a district held by Republicans since 1980.

Barbara Comstock

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump is giving Democrats a fighting chance at winning districts such as Comstock’s that even a year ago seemed firmly in Republican control. Democrats need victories like that to make a serious dent in Republicans’ sizable margin in the U.S. House.

Bennett has attacked Comstock throughout the race for staying mum on Trump. Comstock took a position only after the release of the vulgar “Access Hollywood” video, when she said she couldn’t vote for him. The pair face off in their final debate Wednesday morning.

The political calculus is particularly tricky for Comstock in one of the dozen House races with two major-party female candidates. On Election Day, Comstock will find out whether dumping Trump does more to woo undecided female voters or enrage die-hard Trump fans -- or whether many of her traditional Republican base simply stay home.

‘Who Shows Up’

“Barbara’s trying to run away from Trump and LuAnn’s trying to tie her to Trump,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented a neighboring Virginia district. “But more important than that is who shows up” at the polls.

Even though Democrats are unlikely to take the House on Nov. 8, Trump could help them get closer to that goal. “Any future Democratic House majority would have to have a lot of seats” like Comstock’s, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball political forecasting unit at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which rates the race as “leaning Republican.” It’s a seat that Democrats “probably think they can peel off in 2016 and hold in the future,” he added.

Stretching from the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency to farmland on the West Virginia border, the 10th district has growing Asian and Latino populations and is becoming increasingly liberal.

Earlier this month, Bennett stopped by a Heritage India Festival in Chantilly. Wearing a black trench coat, Bennett greeted constituents while weaving in and out of stalls selling saris and bangles. Soon after, she headed off to visit a nearby Latino festival.

‘How Big’

Bennett, a real-estate executive who was once married to former Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, thinks she can make inroads in a district where Trump is relatively unpopular and where Senator Marco Rubio of Florida finished ahead of him in the March 1 Republican primary. Trump will “lose the district,” Davis said. “The question is how big.”

Interviews with voters suggest that Bennett has work to do if she hopes to tilt the state’s most expensive House race -- and that Republicans still have a chance to overcome their Trump problem.

“I think if you were to go ask 100 people what Barbara Comstock’s position was on Donald Trump, I doubt you’d find 10” who know, James Parmelee, chairman of the Northern Virginia Republican PAC, said while manning a booth at a festival in Centreville.

Sofia Park, 50, tucking two Trump yard signs from the booth under her arm, said that while she disagreed with Comstock and other Republicans distancing themselves from Trump, she would vote for them anyway.

Still Backing Trump

“They should not abandon ship just because the media has floated these scandals,” she said. “I mean, she’s entitled to her opinion, but I’m still going to vote for Trump.”

While President Barack Obama lost the district by only one point in 2012, Comstock took the seat two years later with 56 percent of the vote after the retirement of her mentor, Frank Wolf, who was elected in 1980 among a wave of Republicans when Ronald Reagan took office. Parmelee said Comstock is “running her own race” and that voters can differentiate between congressional and presidential candidates. 

Barbara Ritter is one of those voters. Describing herself as “between” a Democrat and Republican, she is part of the population crucial to a Comstock or Bennett victory.  

At Brewbaker’s Restaurant ladies’ night in Winchester, Ritter, a 44-year-old mortgage loan officer, sat at a counter with a friend, listening to a local musician. She said she hates Trump, but she hadn’t heard of Comstock’s disavowal.

‘Big Factor’

“The fact that she thinks he should step down is a big factor for me,” Ritter said. Even though she is pro-choice, she said she would consider voting for Comstock and didn’t buy the Bennett camp’s argument that Comstock waited too long to distance herself from Trump.

“Everybody has that tipping level to what their tolerance level is,” Ritter said. “This one was kind of the icing on the cake.”

Even so, Bennett says tying Comstock to Trump is proving effective. The campaign points to internal polling that suggests most of those in the district see Comstock’s disavowal of Trump as stemming from political self-interest rather than a demonstration of her independence. Comstock’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the lawmaker has called Bennett’s efforts to tie her to Trump “sad,” according to the Fairfax Station Connection newspaper.

In some ways, the campaign has turned into dueling efforts to tie each candidate to her respective presidential nominee. Comstock attacked Bennett on Twitter over the weekend as someone who would be “a rubber stamp for Hillary Clinton’s $1.1 trillion tax-raising agenda.”

Trump’s Comments

Bennett held her own press conference last week with female community leaders castigating Comstock for staying silent throughout Trump’s various comments on Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans and women.

“I’m afraid that what my opponent was clearly watching for was how best to preserve her own political career,” Bennett said. “What remains true is that Barbara Comstock and Donald Trump share the same reckless agenda.”

Some Trump voters say Comstock’s repudiation could harm her, especially if Trump became more vocal against his detractors.

“What if he starts naming names?” said Kondik. “What if he has a rally in northern Virginia and he says not to vote for Barbara Comstock? If I were in the Comstock camp, that would be my worst nightmare.”

‘Thumbs Down’

Inside the white clapboard office of the Republican committee in Manassas, Kelley Anne Finn, 58, a retired attorney, said she wasn’t happy when Comstock denounced Trump.

“Unless she endorses Trump, I say thumbs down,” Finn said.

But her displeasure may not translate at the ballot box. When pressed, she acknowledged she probably would vote for Comstock anyway.

“I’d like to bluff her into coming out and supporting Donald Trump again.”

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