This weekend, Virginia Delegate Barbara Comstock handily won the “firehouse primary” against five other Republican contenders to replace retiring Rep. Frank Wolf in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. In just 10 locations around the state, the modified primary on a beautiful spring day was able to draw about 13,000 votes, one sign of the enthusiasm among party faithful. A long line of cars filed into the parking lot at the Centreville High School location. It could easily have been confused with a tea party gathering with plenty of “Don’t tread on me” license plates and volunteers in Revolutionary War -style tri-cornered hats waving the traffic through. The challenge then for Comstock — a solidly conservative and familiar fixture in Virginia state politics — was to make certain her opponents didn’t win the limited primary by turning out the most hardcore voters. In other words, would the center of the GOP hold? Comstock didn’t take the race lightly. Indeed, the phone polling and calls plus the paid mail volume was remarkable for a congressional primary. It paid off. Comstock took 54 percent of the vote; her nearest challenger had 28 percent.
The outcome was significant on a few levels. Since the party’s thrashing in November, the spirits of Republican operatives, activists and candidates have rebounded faster than many expected. Tucker Martin, the former communications director for former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), told Right Turn that the party seems to have figured out how to pick candidates. “She’s exactly the kind of Republican candidate who can win in a District like the 10th, ” he said. “Elections are, ultimately, about candidates and Barbara is a great one who fits the District perfectly.” Another longtime Republican strategist commented, “It’s not like it was a moderate vs. a conservative fight.” Rather, he said, “She’s a conservative. . . . It is about who can win.”
As in the 10th Congressional race, Republicans around the state are showing remarkable intensity and enthusiasm for the presumptive GOP nominee Ed Gillespie, who is mounting a serious challenge against Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). He’s turning out large numbers, including a surprising number of young people, both at events and in his campaign offices. He brought in an impressive fundraising haul of $2.2 million in the first quarter. Like Comstock, Gillespie is running as a conservative with a focus on jobs, energy and Obamacare. There is plainly a class element here: Gillespie is painting himself as candidate to look after working- and middle-class voters distraught over health-care costs, jobs, reduced hours and earnings and other byproducts of the Obama policies while Warner rubber-stamps the loopy ideas of the White House and elite donors. As a child of Irish immigrants who worked his way through school, Gillespie is adept at making that pitch.
Gillespie’s camp is fully prepared to see an onslaught of negative campaigning from Warner as Democrats are forced to fall back on allegations of Republican racism, sexism and indifference to the poor. En route to a fundraising event, Gillespie said he was confident that the tactic wouldn’t work. “Voters are not easily distracted in this environment where you have higher health-care costs, higher energy costs and less take-home pay — all these [are] a result of policies Mark Warner supports,” he told me in a brief phone call.
The Comstock and Gillespie campaigns will show how far the Virginia GOP has rebounded from 2012 and 2013. If solid conservatives can evade unelectable primary opponents and run on bread-and butter-issues, then they and other GOP candidates may be able to pull the state back from its Democratic tilt. And in doing so, the two most visible Virginians in the 2014 election could provide a model to other Senate and presidential candidates for how mainstream Republicans can unify their own party and beat the Democrats.