- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2016

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) - Freshman Republican Barbara Comstock touted her connections to the House Republican majority, while Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett sought to tie Comstock to Donald Trump at the pair’s first debate Thursday.

Comstock and Bennett, candidates for Virginia’s 10th District seat, squared off in a forum sponsored by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce that focused primarily on business and economic issues.

The 10th District, which stretches from the wealthy McLean suburbs inside the Capital Beltway out west to Winchester, leans slightly Republican, but is the most closely watched congressional race in the state.

Bennett linked Comstock to Trump at the outset of the debate on multiple issues. Trump’s brand of Republicanism has not proved popular with northern Virginia’s GOP establishment - in the presidential primary in March, Trump trailed Marco Rubio badly in the 10th District despite carrying Virginia statewide.

Barbara Comstock stands for Donald Trump,” Bennett said. “Trump’s extreme agenda would cripple our economy, jeopardize our security, punish women for making their own health care decisions, and worst of all, the Trump agenda deeply divides our country.”

Comstock never mentioned Trump during the hour-long debate, nor has she committed to voting for him in November. But she did defend the work done by the GOP-controlled House, and her role in protecting northern Virginia’s interests with the House leadership. She said she convinced Republicans to restore $75 million funding that had been cut from the beleaguered Metrorail system.

Comstock said her position as the only Republican in the northern Virginia congressional delegation gives her clout the region needs.

“I’m the person in this race that will actually be in the majority, and will serve as a chairman” of a congressional subcommittee, Comstock said.

Bennett derided Comstock’s status as an incumbent, saying she’s “part of a majority that can’t pass a budget.”

The candidates staked out clear differences on several issues. Bennett said she supports increasing the minimum wage, while Comstock did not. Bennett said she supports efforts at comprehensive immigration reform; Comstock said she prefers a piecemeal approach, making advancements on areas of consensus like increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers.

Comstock won the 10th District seat held by her former boss Republican Frank Wolf, by more than 15 points in 2014. But Democrats hope the electorate in a presidential year will work in their favor. Political analysts have generally agreed that Comstock holds an advantage but say the race could be competitive. Bennett has raised more than $1 million, but is still at a financial disadvantage to Comstock in a race taking place in an expensive media market.

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