Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) has, I grant you, a very tough race. She represents Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, which includes near and not-so-near suburbs of Washington that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. Her district has one of the highest percents of college graduates in the country, has become more racially diverse over the past decade and is home to a large number of government workers. The modest, sensible Frank Wolf was the perfect Republican for the district — strong on human rights and defense, reasonable on economic issues, and very concerned about good governance. When Wolf retired, Comstock won his seat, but she’s no Frank Wolf. She has always been a down-the-line conservative Republican, one who first gained prominence during the Clinton investigations of the 1990s. It was always going to be a balancing act for her to stay in line with the district’s ever-more-moderate voters, but in the age of President Trump that has proved nearly impossible. She voted against the House measure to repeal and replace Obamacare, but she backed the GOP tax cuts and has generally supported House Republican leadership. (Comstock didn’t sign the discharge petition to force a vote on a “dreamer” compromise.)

Now she’s truly between a rock and a hard place. In the 2017 gubernatorial race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie lost the 10th District by a 55.6 to 43.3 percent margin with a “Trump-lite” campaign. Rather than learn from that, Comstock’s first ad against her moderate Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, is about — you guessed it — MS-13, exactly like Gillespie tried against now-Gov. Ralph Northam.

Comstock has never been an anti-immigrant hardliner (she supported Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016 for president) and now she is reduced, or rather reduced herself, to playing the same race/immigration card Gillespie and pro-Confederate statue, race-baiting Corey Stewart, the GOP’s Senate nominee, fancy. MS-13 is not, I repeat not, a major issue in her district. It’s a hot button Trumpian issue to rile up the base.

Contrary to Comstock’s inflammatory ad, crime has been dropping in Virginia. “Since 2012, the crime rate statewide has dropped 9 percent,” the state police reported in 2017. When Gillespie claimed there were 2,000 MS-13 members in Fairfax County, The Post’s fact checkers found no evidence to support that number. Claiming her Democratic opponent is a MS-13 softy isn’t likely to impress voters any more than when Gillespie went down that road. (In April, when Comstock first trotted out this issue, The Post reported, “The 10th Congressional District is among the most diverse in the state; Hispanic residents make up about 14 percent of the population, according to census data.”)

It’s sad, really. Comstock was never a nutty conservative, a race-baiter or an extremist on immigration. By running the ad, she has signaled that the only way she thinks she can get elected is by ginning up the far-right GOP base. It didn’t work for Gillespie, and it’s not likely to work any better for her. To the contrary, it might remind voters that she is a lot closer to Trump these days than the beloved Wolf. If she wants to play the ideological game, Wexton will likely be happy to engage, taking Comstock to task for her stance on guns, for example, where Comstock is wildly out of sync with the suburban parents she desperately needs to win. (She has an A rating from the National Rifle Association and, as of Oct. 2017, had received more than $130,000 from the NRA.)

Who knows if Comstock would have survived the primary running without cozying up to the Trump base? That she would not try and instead would rather peddle the Gillespie-Stewart-Trump line is both politically unwise and deeply troubling. There really is no GOP party in Virginia; it’s Trump or nothing.