Democracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Politics

Gun control or gun rights? The answer may help determine whether Rep. Comstock wins reelection

September 4, 2018 at 6:03 PM

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D), left, is challenging Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va) in a swing district where gun control has become a major issue. (Steve Helber, Alex Brandon/AP)

As the nation grapples with mass shootings, gun policy could be a deciding factor in the competitive race between Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) and Democratic challenger state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton in Northern Virginia.

Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman severely injured in a 2011 shooting, last week kicked off her national campaign to elect Democrats with $1 million in cable television ads targeting Comstock. Her group chose the 10th District because Comstock is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country and her district is near the National Rifle Association’s headquarters in Fairfax County.

“Shooting after shooting, Barbara Comstock has failed,” Giffords says straight to the camera in the ad. “She’s taken thousands from the NRA. We must do better.”

Giffords; Mark Kelly, her husband and a former astronaut; and Wexton met Sunday with gun-control advocates.

Voters in Virginia believe gun control is more important than protecting gun rights, according to a recent poll that captured a watershed moment in a once-
conservative state.

Democrats’ pro-gun-control message contrasts sharply with Comstock’s conservative record on gun issues and A rating from the NRA.

Comstock wrote an op-ed published in a Loudoun County newspaper last week saying she supports more money for law enforcement, school safety and treatment for mental illness, which she said is often behind gun violence.

But experts said the national outrage over mass shootings and clamor for limits on gun sales is a challenge that may be difficult for Comstock to overcome in her quest for a third term. Independent rating agencies say the race leans toward Wexton.

Comstock is working hard to separate herself from President Trump, whose election inspired a wave of Democratic activism that helped Gov. Ralph Northam (D) win the district by 12 points in 2017.

“The national context is having a significant impact on voters’ perceptions in Northern Virginia,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “That’s undeniable. It’s not just a Virginia issue, but it’s definitely playing in the elections here.”

There was a time when Virginia Democrats shied away from gun control for fear of alienating conservative voters. As the state has moved to the middle and the left in statewide elections, more voters have embraced gun control.

“I think it started when the mass school shootings started,” said Elaine Lynch, 42, a Great Falls resident who voted for Comstock in 2014. Lynch said she voted for Comstock’s Democratic challenger in 2016 and will vote for Wexton in November because she feels the congresswoman is too conservative for the district on many issues, including guns.

“People were afraid,” Lynch said. “Parents sent their kids to school praying that they’d come home.”

A year after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Terry McAuliffe won the governor’s race in Virginia as an opponent of the NRA.

He called for greater gun control in the state, including an assault weapons ban, stronger background checks, better mental-health care and a return to limiting the number of handguns that an individual can purchase to one per month.

Democratic efforts to restrict guns went nowhere in the GOP-controlled legislature until 2016, when McAuliffe struck a deal with the NRA.

It expanded concealed-carry rights for gun owners in exchange for a law that requires some domestic abusers to relinquish their guns and made it possible to have optional background checks at gun shows.

“At the end of the day, we made Virginia safer, and it’s not about winning elections, it’s about doing what’s right,” McAuliffe said in an interview last Thursday.

The deal was panned by some gun-control groups who at the time objected to any expansion in concealed-carry rights despite the trade-offs, and Wexton’s vote for the legislation was criticized by three of her Democratic opponents in the primary.

Wexton defended her vote by saying the deal presented a historic opportunity to pass limits on guns in a GOP-controlled legislature.

Giffords’s gun-control group, which did not take a public position on the legislation at the time, still decided to support Wexton with the cable ad buy.

“We don’t expect a candidate that we support to be in lockstep with us,” Kelly said in an interview last week. “They need to represent their constituents. That’s why we don’t give people grades. Every one of these districts is different.”

The Giffords organization has endorsed 169 state and federal candidates, including three Republican congressmen, Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania and Leonard Lance and Christopher H. Smith in New Jersey.

Comstock said she has addressed gun violence by supporting a bill that funds task forces aimed at rooting out gang violence, as well as two NRA-
endorsed measures that passed with bipartisan support.

The STOP School Violence Act of 2018 funds school security, and the Fix NICS Act of 2017 encourages agencies to share records with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Neither of the bills directly impact gun sales or purchases.

“Since her days as a senior Justice Department official, Barbara has fought for protecting our families, law enforcement, and public safety, and that advocacy has earned her the endorsement from the Virginia and Fairfax Police Benevolent Associations once again,” her campaign manager, Susan Falconer, said in a statement.

She is not a sponsor of the House version of a bill sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that would have required background checks for all commercial sales of guns.

Comstock has enjoyed strong support from the NRA, which has spent $137,232 on her behalf since she was elected in 2014, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. The number includes $17,850 in direct contributions as well as money the group spent to help elect Comstock or defeat her opponents.

But that backing may be a liability for her among some voters.

A Roanoke College poll released last week found 48 percent of likely voters think it’s more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right of Americans to own guns; 44 percent believe gun rights are paramount.

The numbers mark the first time since Roanoke began asking the question in 2015 that more respondents think gun control is more important than gun rights, although the poll used different methodologies over time.

A June poll by Quinnipiac University asked Virginia registered voters if they supported or opposed stricter gun laws “in the United States,” finding that 60 percent supported them, while 35 percent were opposed.

That’s a slight uptick from last year, when the poll found 51 percent support stricter gun laws in Virginia.

Ellen Rubin, 65, of Herndon, said gun control became more of a priority for her after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. Her daughter was a senior there at the time. Although her daughter was not injured, Rubin went to Blacksburg the following weekend.

“We need to hug you,” she told her daughter. “I think that made me more motivated to see more gun control because it was so close to home.”

Rubin, a Democrat and Wexton voter, said she was not surprised that Comstock touted her “pro-2nd Amendment” position on mailers in the GOP primary.

“She knows what her constituents want to hear, and she’s feeding it to them,” she said.

Data show public opinion was starting to move in Virginia before the increase in mass shootings, but the national picture “escalated” the shift in support for gun control, said Rozell, of the Schar School.

“And that’s the challenge for Comstock, because, for good or bad, she’s been consistent in that issue area,” he said. “That provides something of an opening for her opponents. That’s why the ads on this issue are out right now. They know it.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia, Maryland and D.C. politics for The Washington Post. She previously worked for the Newark Star-Ledger and the Allentown Morning Call, and has been a newspaper reporter since 2001.

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