- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

A longtime conservative tagged as part of the Republicans Party’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” is plunging into the newly blue pool of Virginia politics.

Barbara Comstock — the former head of research at the Republican National Committee and ex-spokeswoman for Attorney General John Ashcroft — plans to challenge Democrat Margaret Vanderhye in Fairfax County’s 34th House District in November.

“I have always been a strong advocate in anything that I’ve been working on, and I felt very strongly about keeping Northern Virginia the community that it is,” Mrs. Comstock said.

Her race comes as Virginia again stands to get its share of the national political spotlight. Virginia and New Jersey are the only states to hold gubernatorial contests this year, and all 100 members of the state House also are up for re-election.

Mrs. Comstock was a veteran political operative who headed I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s defense fund and was a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration. She also served as an adviser to the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and as counsel for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in the 1990s.

She began her career as an intern for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, before switching sides, so to speak.

“She’s clearly an all-star,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican who served on the House committee during Mrs. Comstock’s tenure.

“What’s happening around Northern Virginia is the Republicans are back,” said Mr. Davis, who thinks the party will be more successful, in part, because critics can no longer attack the Bush administration. “They are mounting strong challenges in a number of districts, and that’s one.”

During her time with the House committee and the RNC, Mrs. Comstock probed the Clinton presidency for evidence of scandal and compiled information for use against Vice President Al Gore, a former presidential candidate.

She helped lead the investigation into “Travelgate,” looking into first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s role in firing employees in the White House Travel Office.

In her book “Hell to Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Mrs. Comstock’s colleague Barbara Olson — the wife of former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson and a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, who died when the plane crashed into the Pentagon — said working with Mrs. Comstock was like “having the entire IBM mainframe working with you.”

“Besides being an incredibly gifted congressional investigator and lawyer, she worked literally around the clock to expose the well-concealed wrongdoing in the White House,” Mrs. Olson wrote.

Mrs. Comstock said the issues that have attracted her attention have been driven by policy and concern for constituents, rather than a political agenda.

She highlighted her support of a media shield bill opposed by the Bush administration and said some travel office employees fired during the Clinton administration were constituents of her former boss, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.

“It was a matter of these people had been wronged,” Mrs. Comstock said.

Despite her credentials, a Comstock victory in Northern Virginia could prove difficult: Virginia last year voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964, delivered an open U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Mark R. Warner and reversed the Republican majority among its congressional House delegation.

President Obama also bested Sen. John McCain in the 34th District’s precinct totals in the November presidential election.

Still, Republicans point to recent signs of hope for their resurgence: Republican Pat Herrity defeated Democrat and overall victor Sharon S. Bulova in the 34th District during their race for chairman of the county Board of Supervisors earlier this month, and Delegate Charniele Herring in January held off a challenge by Republican Joe Murray by just 16 votes in Democrat-dominated Alexandria.

Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Mrs. Comstock’s political past pales compared to Mrs. Vanderhye’s work in the General Assembly on such issues as renewable energy and women’s health.

“Barbara Comstock may have a long partisan resume working for the likes of Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby, but she has a long way to go to catch up to what Margi Vanderhye has already done working for the residents of Fairfax County,” he said.

Mrs. Vanderhye — a former gubernatorial appointee to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and a Clinton appointee to the National Capital Planning Commission — stressed her experience in advocating for Northern Virginia and her more moderate political leanings as reasons she hopes to succeed in November.

“I’m a centrist by political persuasion, which I think is a good match for my district,” Mrs. Vanderhye said. “I also have been very purposeful as an elected official in reaching out to constituents, and invited them to be part of the process.”

Mr. Ashcroft said Mrs. Comstock — who worked as Justice Department spokeswoman from 2002 to late 2003 — also has qualities to make her successful in state government and enable her to work cooperatively with Democrats.

“She is a truth-teller, so whether people are for her or against her, they can trust her,” Mr. Ashcroft told The Washington Times. “And that’s a fundamental characteristic if you’re going to be able to reach across the aisle from time to time to get things done for the public benefit.”

For several months in 2008, Mrs. Comstock’s firm, Corallo and Comstock Inc., performed public relations for The Washington Times on a contract basis.

Mrs. Comstock already is drawing on her Republican roots for financial and political backing: Mr. Romney attended a fundraiser for her Feb. 26 in the District, and her campaign kickoff — originally scheduled for March 2 but postponed due to weather — will feature Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

As a delegate, Mrs. Comstock said she would work to keep Virginia’s “business-friendly climate” and solve the state’s systemic transportation problem. She said she is running in part to ensure the General Assembly has “strong bipartisan representation for Northern Virginia.”

“There’s a lot of people who would say let’s just have the Democrats take over Northern Virginia,” she said.

Democrats did take over the state Senate in 2007 and currently hold a 21-19 majority. If this year they can reverse Republican control of the House, where the GOP holds a 53-45 advantage, it would be yet another sign that Virginia is no longer a red state.

Adding extra weight to the stakes is the fact that the General Assembly and governor will redraw the state’s legislative districts in 2011.

Whichever party has the most power will be able to control the process, and a Vanderhye-Comstock race could play a crucial role.

“Democrats are going to raise and spend a lot of money … they’re going to target even senior Republicans,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Republicans also know that the stakes are very, very high. They can’t afford to lose the House.”

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