The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock lost her Northern Va. district

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) delivers her concession speech on Nov. 6 after being defeated by state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) in Virginia's 10th District race.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) delivers her concession speech on Nov. 6 after being defeated by state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) in Virginia's 10th District race. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Supporters of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) placed the blame for her loss Tuesday squarely on the shoulders of President Trump.

The strong Democratic turnout that elected Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and swept a new class of liberal state lawmakers into office last year only grew in the midterm election, helping Jennifer Wexton win by 12 points.

“It can be frustrating to look back and see the result was preordained, but in this case it may have been preordained,” said longtime GOP strategist Tucker Martin. “The election of Donald Trump just made life difficult for Barbara Comstock and members whose districts look like hers.”

Democrats expected Wexton to win in Virginia’s 10th District, where polls show Trump is deeply unpopular, but they also flipped two other largely suburban districts in the Richmond suburbs and Hampton Roads.

Wexton will join former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, who defeated Rep. Dave Brat, and retired Naval commander Elaine Luria, who unseated Rep. Scott Taylor, in Congress next year, marking the first time there will be three women in the Virginia delegation.

Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor, led in public polling from the start of the race and ran a disciplined campaign focused on Trump and areas where she disagreed with Comstock such as health care, gun policy and abortion.

At times, the many progressive grass-roots groups that sprung up in the 10th District after Trump’s election pined for Wexton to take risks and grab headlines the way other challengers across the country did. But steady-as-you-go won the day.

“It was most important for her to rally her base and not commit any unforced errors,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), a friend who serves with her in the legislature. “That kind of a strategy doesn’t look exciting. It’s not Beto O’Rourke live-streaming lunch at Whataburger, but she wasn’t running to close a gap. She had a lead to protect.”

O’Rourke, the Democratic Senate hopeful from Texas, lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by 3 points.

Wexton also withstood attack ads that Simon called “so over the top as to be ineffective.” Comstock and the National Republican Congressional Committee called her the state’s most liberal senator, blamed her for huge rush-hour tolls on I-66 and attacked her record as a prosecutor. None of it stuck.

Although Comstock at times broke with Trump, she couldn’t denounce him enough to satisfy independents for fear of alienating conservatives in the rural western part of the district.

Independents supported Wexton by a more-than-20-point margin in the district, a critical swing given self-identified Democrats and Republicans made up a roughly equal share of voters, according to preliminary results from The Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Dan Scandling, former chief of staff to Comstock’s predecessor and mentor, former Republican congressman Frank R. Wolf, said the loss was out of Comstock’s control.

“She just couldn’t withstand the head winds,” he said. “The environment was just too much, and there’s nothing more she could have done. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happened this time.”

In addressing supporters Tuesday night, Comstock shared a positive message, ticking off accomplishments from tax cuts to boosting military spending and encouraged young volunteers.

“These are your victories,” she told the crowd. “Our common-sense conservative values we all continue to fight for.”

As for what’s next for her, some predicted she could try to win back her seat in 2020. Presidential year turnout is tricky for Republicans in Virginia, but she won in 2016 when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the state and the congressional district.

Conservative talk radio host John Fredericks said she could run statewide in 2021.

“I think she’d be a legitimate candidate for governor,” he said.

Surveying Comstock’s lifetime at the highest levels of GOP politics, former state Republican chairman John Whitbeck put it this way: “Nobody’s more connected than Barbara Comstock,” he said. “She’ll land on her feet.”

Steve Thompson and Scott Clement contributed to this report.