National Issues Loom Large in Key House Race Near DC

"The Trump agenda is very important to voters," said one political scientist, who says the Republican incumbent in Virginia's 10th District has lost her bipartisan "cred"

What to Know

  • Rep. Barbara Comstock faces a strong challenge from Democrat Jennifer Wexton in a district west of Washington, D.C.
  • Comstock stresses "results versus the resistance" in trying to hold a district that went heavily for Hillary Clinton
  • But Wexton may be able to capitalize on national reaction to Trump's presidency that experts say is felt especially strong in the district

Warner Workman has met his Virginia congresswoman several times at local events and says he's "always dumbfounded when she actually remembers my name."

Rep. Barbara Comstock's social media pages are filled with photos of her thanking local first responders at 9/11 memorials, posing with families at county fairs, attending Boy Scout events and opening new police stations in Virginia's 10th Congressional District.

The Republican congresswoman is "always out there … getting to know people," Workman said.

Her approach worked in 2016, when she won re-election even as the district voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points. But the 2018 midterm election could spell the end of Comstock's tenure in Congress and nearly four decades of Republican control of the district, which stretches along Virginia's northern border from the progressive suburbs of Washington, D.C., into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Comstock is running against Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, a former prosecutor from Loudoun County, which experts see as a crucial part of the district. The wealthy and increasingly diverse county has started swinging toward Democrats, as has the state overall. 

Comstock, who lives closer to D.C. in neighboring Fairfax County, faces two strong headwinds: the district's burgeoning Democratic bent and those voters' opposition to the leader of her party, President Donald Trump.

Experts say people are looking beyond the boundaries of their own district to inform how they vote in this election, and that makes Comstock one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election.

After the two contentious years that followed Trump becoming president, "the Trump agenda is very important to voters," George Mason University political science professor Toni-Michelle Travis said.

This article, part 3 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience and organization, and an outspoken but polarizing president.

Comstock has distanced herself from Trump on some key issues like health care — she voted against the American Health Care Act, which would have repealed "Obamacare" — and imposing sanctions on Russia. At a televised roundtable with Trump in February, she told Trump a government shutdown was a bad idea for her constituents, some of whom work for the federal government.

"This election is about results versus the resistance," Comstock said at a late-September debate with Wexton, where she touted her support of the Republican tax cut plan and "a booming economy."

But she's voted in line with Trump's agenda 97.8 percent of the time, putting her among the most consistently pro-Trump members of Congress, according to a tally kept by news outlet FiveThirtyEight. (By contrast, only a few Democrats voted along with Trump 50 percent of the time or more.)

Wexton's campaign has zeroed in on Comstock's voting record, recently running attack ads that call her "Barbara Trumpstock." This week, The Washington Post endorsed Wexton after backing Comstock in 2016, calling the Republican an "often unquestioning foot soldier in the president's ranks of Republican loyalists."

In the debate, Wexton hit back at Comstock's resistance remark, saying the Trump administration "is constantly assaulting many of the values that Americans hold dear."

Travis, the George Mason University professor, said Trump's agenda has been "so disheartening" that many voters don't see a candidate with Comstock's voting record as the best person to represent them in Congress.

"Comstock's cred has just gone down," Travis said.

Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer argued in an email that Comstock is a bipartisan and independent leader who's deeply engaged in the district and "will stand up for what's right for the district, regardless of party." She pushed back on the reliability of the Trump agenda tracker, contending that 82 percent of votes Comstock took had support from some Democrats.

"She trusts the independent minded men and women of her district who know how important it is to have bipartisan leadership for the region in order to get these important victories," Falconer wrote, referring to the congressional delegation representing the D.C. area — all the others are Democrats.

But public polling indicates that Wexton is running ahead of Comstock. One poll from the Post this month put Wexton's lead at 12 points. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as lean Democrat. Travis argued it would be "very hard" for Comstock to pull ahead, unless something "weird" happens.

"But Wexton needs to still work at it," Travis added, saying the other party "can always win if you underestimate your opponent."

Think Nationally, Act Locally
Tina Stevens-Culbreath, a Democrat from the city of Winchester, west of D.C. in the Shenandoah Valley, is concerned about a "culture of hate" in the country that stems from the 2016 election.

People "feel they are allowed to do and say basically anything that they want without consequence," Stevens-Culbreath said.

She and her husband are looking to Wexton to be a unifier, someone "we're going to need to bring this country together," as Rodney Culbreath put it. The couple founded the I'm Just Me Movement, a mentorship nonprofit that aims to promote diversity and inclusion among kids in the area. 

To win, Wexton may need a strong performance in suburbs like Winchester that are further from D.C., as well as in crucial Loudon County, which is more diverse and more likely to vote Democrat, according to John J. McGlennon, a government and public policy professor at The College of William & Mary.

Voters in the area are especially attuned to national issues, he said, partly because of their proximity to D.C., which affects their livelihood.

Seventeen-year-old Ainsley Rucker said that it's become a "moral obligation" to vote in the midterms to "put the Trump administration on check," even if she can't yet cast her own ballot.

Women's rights, LGBTQ rights and education are among the issues fueling Rucker's political passion. She is the president of the Winchester Young Democrats coalition, which has expanded to every local high school since its inception earlier this year, Rucker said.

"Since we can't have our voices directly heard through voting, we feel like the only thing we can do to make ourselves heard is ... get other people to understand what we think as young people and influence the people around us," Rucker said.

Casey Turben, a longtime Winchester resident and local historian, said that Trump's election has sparked local-level activism, and it will be "the lasting story of 2016."

Rucker also pushed back on the notion that Comstock is deeply involved in the district, saying she was "refusing to answer questions" from her constituents by not holding formal town hall meetings.

Asked by NBC, Comstock's campaign manager didn't say when Comstock last held a town hall meeting. But Falconer said the congresswoman attended a recent forum on the opioid crisis in Loudon County and emphasized her many visits with local civic, religious and ethnic organizations.

Workman, the Comstock supporter, argued she just "does things a little differently" in regards to meeting with her voters, saying "she goes to the people instead of having the people come to her."

Comstock still has support in Winchester, too, a city that was nearly evenly split between Clinton and Trump in 2016.

Robert Starkey, a local electrician, said she "just seems to care for Virginia and supports guns."

And as a small business owner, Starkey said he wants a representative who will help him be successful and keep the economy strong.

"I think Comstock is for helping us with taxes," he said. 

'Common-Sense Gun Laws'
Gun rights is one national issue that animates the supporters of both candidates who spoke to NBC.

Workman, the Comstock supporter, said he's looking to her to protect his Second Amendment rights. A retired CIA technical intelligence officer who owns Minuteman Arms in Lovettsville, in Loudon County, Workman said he respects people who don't want to carry guns or have them on their property.

He said always will "respect the private property rights of others" and leave his gun in his car, for example, if a person or private business doesn't want firearms on their property.

Workman worries that so-called "common-sense gun laws" could lead to it becoming more difficult overall to purchase firearms, a right he deeply believes in and which he depends on to keep his shop running. Workman said he donates his store profits to veterans groups and Little League baseball in the area.

Comstock has an "A" rating from the NRA and is one of the top recipients of the group's political contributions. She has supported bills that address mental illness treatment, which she has said is one of the issues at the heart of gun violence, along with increased funding for school safety and security and strengthening the national gun background check system.

According to her campaign, she also supports banning "bump stocks," a device used in last year's Las Vegas massacre that increases the rate of fire on semi-automatic rifles, and "red flag" laws that provide a way to take weapons from people who are a harm to themselves or others.

Rucker and Winchester Young Democrats vice president Niko Christen, 15, are looking to Wexton for her plans to take on gun violence. They were in high school during a year that saw mass shootings at several U.S. schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 people died, and Santa Fe High School in Texas, where 10 died.

The students said they want "common-sense gun laws that could prevent people who shouldn't have them from getting them," which could include "red flag" laws and a slower process for purchasing firearms.

Wexton spokesman Ray Rieling said "common-sense" gun legislation is one of the candidate's top priorities, along with affordable and accessible health care and fighting political corruption.

Wexton most strongly supports universal background checks, a "great first step for tightening up our gun violence prevention measures," Rieling said. The Democrat also supports banning military-style assault weapons and allowing the federal government to study gun violence as a public health issue, according to her campaign website.

"We may not be able to stop all the school shootings, but shouldn't we at least try to stop some?" Wexton asked the state's General Assembly in February.

The district has a large population of the kind of voters who recently have turned away from the NRA — college-educated, white-collar workers — and the issue could be what helps tip the balance for Wexton. According to a recent NBC News poll, Americans in suburbs who had a negative view of the NRA increased from 36 percent in April 2017 to 40 percent after the Parkland shooting.

Can Comstock Come Back?
Comstock's campaign manager said that the Republican "has never lost a race and always overperforms expectations," noting that Comstock's district was rated as a "toss-up" in 2016 before she won by 6 percentage points.

While recent public polls put Wexton in front by at least 6 percentage points, a recent internal poll gives Comstock a slight lead, though within the margin of error.

But Turben, the Winchester historian, said the tides are changing in Virginia's 10th District. He said a Wexton victory would come with "a slump of sure GOP votes in the western boundaries of the district," adding that it would be a "loud and clear" message to Congress that the expectations rural voters have for Washington are shifting.

William & Mary professor McGlennon said that educated, affluent Loudon County represents a political shift happening in suburbs across the country.

"Suburbia has become a lot more diverse, and suburban voters have been moving strongly towards Democrats, and that has the potential to transform not just the politics of Virginia, but much of the country," he said.

While Comstock appears to be "in a very deep hole," McGlennon said, she could still win by finding a way to convince voters that she won't regularly support Trump, that "she will be an independent voice" and more attuned to her voters on social issues than a typical Republican.

"And I think that's a very tall order," he added.

It's an issue that the Wexton campaign is latching on to.

Trump is "certainly part of the conversation about everything," Rieling said, and Wexton's plans for "holding this administration accountable is an enormous issue for voters."

NBC's Sierra Jackson contributed to this report.

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