- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2018

Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock says Democrats should hold off on putting a check mark next to Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, where one of the most expensive, closely watched House races is taking shape.

Her affluent district, stretching from the Washington suburbs to West Virginia, is exactly the type of district that Democrats say they will win this year.

Democrats are counting on an anti-Trump backlash, a desire to overturn the Republican-led Congress and a surge of interest in gun control to unseat suburban Republicans.

But Ms. Comstock said she has been a top target in her past two elections yet emerged with a 16-percentage-point victory in 2014 and won re-election by 6 points in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton carried the district by close to double digits.

“They’ve underestimated me every time, frankly,” said Ms. Comstock. “There were people who only won by 700 votes, 1 or 2 points, and I wasn’t one of them.”

Ahead of a primary contest Tuesday, Ms. Comstock is highlighting her vote for Republican tax cuts and her work combating violent gangs in the region as she tries to shore up the pro-Trump elements of her party.

“What I do is I focus on the issues of the district and the priorities of the district,” she said, also touting support from Trump administration officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, whose political group endorsed her before he moved to his White House post.

Her relationship with Mr. Trump is more complicated, though.

After calling for Mr. Trump to exit the 2016 presidential race over his past lewd comments about women, she voted for his stated positions on issues 97 percent of the time by some tallies.

She also appeared with the president in February 2017 at a bill-signing ceremony for her legislation to promote women in science and math fields, and was part of a high-profile immigration meeting this year where she told Mr. Trump not to shut down the government over the issue.

“We all get to have our own style. I’m my own person, so I work the way I work,” she said. “I think what’s important for the American people and what people tell me is they like the results that we’re getting.”

In the face of potentially strong anti-Trump headwinds, though, she is emphasizing her work on more local issues such as human trafficking, the opioid epidemic, and the district’s burgeoning technology and health care industries.

“This district is not a district that’s in love with Donald Trump, and if this is a referendum on Trump, she loses,” said former Rep. Tom M. Davis III, who represented the neighboring 11th Congressional District from 1995 to 2008. “She’s got to carve her own way.”

Political handicappers are rating the race a “toss-up,” and outside groups on both sides are homing in — even in the expensive Washington metropolitan media market — since the 10th District is one of about two dozen Republican-held seats that also broke for Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

Democrats are hoping that the congresswoman’s stated support for the president’s policies will backfire on her in November.

“The more Rep. Barbara Comstock tries to satisfy the furthest fringes of her party, the more she is reminding Northern Virginia families of her extreme positions that are completely out of step with this district,” said Jacob Peters, a spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

At the same time, she is facing more immediate pressure from her right flank from primary challenger Shak Hill, a retired Air Force pilot.

Mr. Hill said Ms. Comstock failed conservatives when she voted against one of the House Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bills, against a measure that would have barred the Pentagon from funding sex change surgeries for transgender service members and for the recent $1.3 trillion government spending bill.

“In order to win a primary, you have to bring out the base. I mean, that’s politics 101. And Barbara Comstock has alienated the base,” Mr. Hill said.

Ms. Comstock said she didn’t support the Obamacare repeal bill because of its many uncertainties in trying to fix the health care system. Her office said she was trying to defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Pentagon on the issue of transgender surgeries.

She dismissed Mr. Hill’s attacks on her vote for the omnibus spending bill this year by saying it was necessary to reverse harmful defense cuts that were hollowing out the military.

A survey released last month by a group supporting Mr. Hill showed Ms. Comstock with a 27-point edge. As of May 23, the close of the pre-primary reporting period, Ms. Comstock had amassed a campaign war chest of close to $1.7 million, compared with about $55,000 for Mr. Hill.

Mr. Davis said Mr. Hill probably will get some votes Tuesday but is unlikely to win. He said Republicans should be thankful for that because Ms. Comstock is a good match for the district.

Mr. Hill, meanwhile, has touted support from conservative figures such as former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to Mr. Trump who still commands a loyal following among some conservatives.

“She promised to be a conservative and has performed like a Democrat,” Mr. Gorka said of Ms. Comstock.

But Ms. Comstock’s backers point to her 97 percent pro-Trump voting record as a positive both for conservatives and general election voters if the issues are framed correctly.

“I’ve studied the record, and the record of Barbara Comstock, hands down, supersedes anything that Shak Hill has done or will ever do,” said Daniel Cortez, a local advocate on immigration and veterans issues.

Meanwhile, six candidates are competing Tuesday for the Democratic nomination.

Peter Rousselot, a past candidate for chairman of the state Democratic Party, said that is a turnaround from past elections, when they struggled to find someone with name recognition and money. He said Democrats’ strong performance in state elections last year, combined with anti-Trump sentiment, led to “a remarkable field of Democratic candidates unlike anything we’ve seen in this century.”

Still, Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said Ms. Comstock’s strength as a candidate could very well carry her to another term in Congress — if she can keep the race focused on local issues.

“It’s going to be a battle for her — an uphill battle,” he said. “To the extent to which national issues or a national tide creeps into the 10th District, Comstock’s in trouble.”


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