Republican Comstock looks to keep Virginia 34th House seat

October 18, 2011

Del. Barbara Comstock and Pamela Danner are making different bets on what Northern Virginia voters want in the state House.

Is the 34th District looking for a woman with two years’ head start in Richmond, a solidly conservative record and a Rolodex full of national contacts? Or a self-described moderate lawyer who brags about not being an incumbent?

The answer, to be revealed Nov. 8, will help illustrate just how much of Fairfax and Loudoun counties is swing territory and how eager voters there are for change.

“I’d like to wear an ‘I’m not an incumbent’ [sign] on my head because people aren’t happy with either party,” said Danner (D), a lawyer who has served on several local boards and task forces.

Comstock (R), who worked on Capitol Hill and with the Justice Department before going into private-sector public affairs, emphasizes that much of what goes on in Richmond is bipartisan and says Danner overstates the extent to which the two parties squabble over state issues.

“People do realize that Virginia is quite a bit different from Washington, when they see all of the fighting that goes on there,” Comstock said.

The 34th District hugs the Potomac River, stretching from McLean to Sterling. After the 2010 Census, it was redrawn to include a slice of Vienna and a portion of eastern Loudoun and dropped part of McLean.

In the process, the seat — which Comstock won in 2009 over then-Del. Margaret G. Vanderhye (D-Fairfax) by just 422 votes — became more favorable to Republicans, just as many other districts across the state were drawn to make incumbents more comfortable.

The old district gave Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) 54 percent of the vote in his 2009 campaign victory. If the new boundaries had been in place then, he would’ve gotten 57 percent. But this is still purple territory: President Obama (D) beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) under the new lines by three percentage points in 2008.

“This district is always going to be a swing district because the people here are tied into the government,” Vanderhye said.

The changed lines could help Comstock’s career in the long run because she is viewed as a potential candidate to succeed Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) — her former boss — whenever he decides to retire from his Loudoun-based 10th Congressional District.

Asked whether she might run for Congress someday, Comstock wouldn’t say.

“I love this job,” she said of her current position, “and what I love about working on the state level is that you can impact things in your area very directly.”

Anthony Bedell, the chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said Comstock is the clear favorite in the delegate race because she is “so well-known in the district” and “she is probably the hardest-working campaigner I’ve ever seen.”

“Tie that in with the district [getting] a bit more Republican than last time, and we still have a pretty good Republican brand — all that adds up to her winning pretty significantly,” he said.

But Vanderhye says the contest is all about turnout by independent voters.

“If they show up like they did in 2007, rather than how they did in 2009, then it’s a winnable race,” Vanderhye said.

Fundraising

Comstock has a clear financial edge.

She raised $297,000 last month alone and had $378,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30, according to records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. Her receipts include a $100,000 donation from House Speaker William J. Howell’s (R-Stafford) Dominion Leadership Trust PAC, and $25,000 apiece from Howell’s own campaign account and McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC.

Danner, who criticizes Comstock for her financial support from “down-state Republicans,” took in $83,000 over the same period and had $80,000 left over.

But Danner is hoping that she is a better fit for a centrist, suburban district than Comstock, who recently received a 100 percent vote rating from the American Conservative Union.

“I’m fiscally conservative and socially moderate, and I tell people that,” said Danner, a former Republican who lost GOP primary contests for the state Senate in 1991 and 1995.

Danner says Comstock is out of step with Northern Virginia on social issues, as the Republican opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research and supports gun rights, including a 2010 bill to allow concealed weapons in bars.

“My opponent got an ‘A’ rating by the NRA. . . . That is certainly not consistent with this district,” Danner said.

But it’s not clear that any of those issues will be decisive in the current economic climate.

Comstock has knocked on thousands of doors in the district, and she said she hears “very little” about social issues.

“Everyone makes clear to me that their priorities are the economy, jobs, roads and schools,” Comstock said.

Key issues

Dulles Metrorail is a key issue in the district, as is the possibility of widening Route 7, the main commuting artery for many in Loudoun.

Comstock said she was “open” to the possibility of getting more state funding for Dulles rail, though she cautioned that “we need to be very mindful of the taxpayers’ money.” Danner is more adamant that state money is needed for the project.

“I say that she has not gotten [enough] transportation funds for this district even though that’s what she campaigned on,” Danner said of Comstock.

One solution to coping with the region’s notoriously bad traffic is allowing more workers to telecommute.

“My telework bill that I passed is something that I get a lot of good response on,” Comstock said, referring to a measure she sponsored giving employers a tax credit to cover the expense of having employees work from home.

She also takes pride in having helped to kill a proposal for a two-lane left turn from Route 7 onto Georgetown Pike in Great Falls.

Comstock has the backing of major business groups in the district, and Danner has been endorsed by several environmental and teachers union groups. Comstock criticizes Danner for supporting Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which includes mandates that she said “would just crush small businesses.”

On the education front, the lack of all-day kindergarten in Loudoun is a major issue on the campaign trail, both candidates said.

Danner accuses Comstock of overstating her role in getting all-day kindergarten in Fairfax schools, an accusation Comstock strongly denies.

“I worked with a number of coalitions to get the job done,” Comstock said. “I don’t care who gets the credit.”

For previous coverage of the 2011 legislative races in Virginia:

Flanary vs. Marsden: In Fairfax Senate race, partisan politics just below the surface

Virginia Senate Hopeful Jeff Frederick, once cast out by GOP, now has its support

Eyes on Northern Va.’s swing districts

Republican looks for an upset in Northern Virginia Senate contest

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