Several Democrats are considering challenging Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) next year, setting up a potential primary in a northern Virginia district that has been in Republican hands since the early 1980s.
The enthusiasm among Democrats in Comstock’s district reflects a trend playing out around the country as liberal activists who want to combat President Trump’s agenda turn to public office.
Comstock isn’t up for re-election until 2018, but candidates are already busy gaming out the race and lining up support in a district where experts say an off-year election requires a war chest of at least $3 million.
Many Democrats say the most formidable candidate of the bunch would be state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, 48, an attorney from Loudoun County, who confirmed to The Washington Post that she is weighing a run, but declined further comment.
Kimberly Adams, 41, the past president of the Fairfax teachers union, already announced her candidacy, has a web site and is raising money.
Dorothy McAuliffe, 53, the wife of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is considering joining the crowded field as well, according to two Democrats familiar with her thinking.
Also thinking about jumping into the race are Lindsey Davis Stover, 38, a communications strategist from McLean who served as a senior advisor to the secretary for Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration, Daniel Helmer, 35, an Army veteran and Rhodes Scholar from Fairfax County and Jimmy Bierman, an 31-year-old attorney from McLean.
For years, Democrats have nursed hopes of winning the district, which stretches from the Washington suburbs to rural counties along the West Virginia border.
Former congressman Frank Wolf’s 34-year hold on the seat kept it out of reach for Democrats for three decades. His protegee, Comstock, is trying to follow his lead. She out-performed Trump, who lost the state to Hillary Clinton, by 16 points to a win a second term last year.
But Democrats say that Trump’s bumpy young presidency has energized many and that any candidate who can tap into anti-Trump sentiment and focus on the right mix of national and local issues would have a chance.
“Districts like VA10 are really ones that represent the path back to the majority for Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes House elections at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Comstock, a former Republican operative, will be ready for the fight. In an eight-year period, she won three competitive races at the state level and two for Congress.
“Democrats have spent over $20 million trying to defeat her and they have a 0-5 record to show for it because these failed campaigns are dictated by partisan operatives from outside the district who continuously underestimate Congresswoman Comstock’s record of legislative accomplishment, her hard work ethic, and her constant presence and connection with her constituents,” her political director, Ken Nunnenkamp, said in a statement.
Outside groups spent nearly $15 million on the 2016 contest between Comstock and LuAnn Bennett, a real estate developer from McLean, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which named Comstock’s seat one of its top mid-term targets — and Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, are quietly conferring with potential challengers. Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott, Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer and Donald McEachin have also been meeting with them, as has former congressman Jim Moran.
Bennett, who lost to Comstock by six points, has notruled out running again, but said she is not considering it at the moment.
“I am encouraged that so many people are willing to step up,” she said. “If my campaign demonstrated anything it was that Comstock is vulnerable. She can be beat.”
Democrats and liberal activists tracking Comstock since the election are unhappy with her practice of holding meetings with small groups of constituents and keeping them secret until they are over. She has declined to hold a town hall meeting, prompting one group to hold its own without her.
The activists behind the website DumpComstock.com raised money for a billboard they plan to erect on Monday in the western end of the district admonishing Comstock to “Do your job. Hold a town hall,” and have posted videos of the congresswoman avoiding questions.
“Anger and frustration can be a great motivator,” Kondik said, explaining why several people are considering a run against Comstock.
Fairfax County Supervisor Kathy L. Smith issued a statement last month urging Comstock to vote against the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. That sparked speculation among some, including the liberal blog Blue Virginia, that Smith is also weighing a run. Through her chief of staff, Smith declined comment.
Comstock said she would have voted “no,” but the bill was pulled from the floor.
Patsy Brown, who chairs the Democratic Party committee in the congressional district, said the field is in flux. The committee will decide on the method of nomination — a state-run primary or a party-run caucus — early next year.
“At least 13 people have contacted me,” she said. “Two have since pulled out. I have met personally with 10 of them and I have meeting number 11 set up for later this week... At this stage of the game, it’s wide open.”
Helmer, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Rhodes Scholar, said the election inspired him.
“In the wake of the election I realized there’s a need for a re-dedication to our values,” he said. “Trump’s election is part of it, but there’s a real hunger for a government that works, a Congress that moves beyond sound bites.”
Lindsey Davis Stover was chief of staff to Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who lost reelection in 2010. She worked for the Obama administration for about two years and then founded a communications firm that specializes in veterans and defense issues.
“It’s a time when courage is needed to stand up to Donald Trump and the values we hold dear,” she said. “There’s an energy right now in the district that is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Privately, Democrats say Wexton, the state senator, would have an early leg up because she is a current office holder and former prosecutor with roots in Loudoun County, the heart of the district and where Trump lost by 16 points.
“Her ability to fight back is something that’s needed when you face Comstock because Comstock has no relationship with the truth,” said Del. Kathleen Murphy, who lost a 2013 House of Delegates race to Comstock. “And you need to be able to counter the things that she says with facts, the real facts.”
Asked about Murphy's comments, Nunnenkamp, Comstock’s political director, said Democrats who took her advice have not been able to unseat the congresswoman.
“Those failed campaigns have also had one thing in common – the bitter partisan advice of Kathleen Murphy, whose paltry record of passing legislation, pales in comparison to that of Rep. Comstock,” he said.