In a Northern Virginia swing district that is one of the most watched in this midterm election, one-quarter of the electorate can’t really say what they think of state Sen. Jennifer Wexton. But in most polls, the Democrat is comfortably ahead of Rep. Barbara Comstock, the two-term Republican who is ubiquitous.
That phenomenon says plenty about this particular moment in this particular suburban district across the river from Washington, heavy with college-educated, affluent voters and growing immigrant communities. Voters in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District say they want to vote for a Democrat — any Democrat — as a check on President Trump.
Johannah MacBain, a 38-year-old public school teacher, couldn’t remember if she had voted for Comstock in 2016, but she said Trump’s election has propelled her to vote for Wexton. Asked why, she said, “If I’m going to be really honest here, [it’s] that she’s not Barbara Comstock.”
But if anyone can withstand a blue wave, it’s Comstock, her supporters say. She has stayed closely connected to community groups throughout her sprawling district and is a tenacious campaigner. Hillary Clinton swept her district in 2016 by 10 percentage points but Comstock survived, and when the dust cleared, she had outperformed Trump by 16 points.
“She is going to win again. Because she’s Barbara Comstock. She has her own brand. She’s tough!” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and Trump loyalist.
Wexton has run a cautious campaign, trying to avoid any fumbles that could jeopardize Democrats’ chances to flip a district that has been in Republican hands for nearly 40 years. A lack of a bold message may be why one out of every four voters said they didn’t have an opinion of her as recently as early October.
“She’s competent, she’s experienced, she’s not going to cause any unforced errors,” said former Virginia congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat who recently hosted a fundraiser for her.
Wexton’s campaign boils down to this: Comstock has voted with Trump 98 percent of the time. Republicans want to destroy your health care. Only Democrats can enact gun control. Her ads call the congresswoman “Barbara Trumpstock.”
Comstock says she is running as an independent who breaks with Trump when necessary, cares about federal employees and worked to combat sexual harassment. She has embraced the slogan “results, not resistance” and said the vast majority of votes she has cast also had support of at least a few Democrats, including four to address the opioid crisis and 11 to cut government red tape.
“These are good policies that are making our country stronger economically, stronger [on] national security and a safer place to live, that people should be embracing [and] not resisting,” she said on Fredericks’ radio show.
The sprawling district contains the affluent, neatly manicured communities of McLean and Ashburn and the liberal enclaves in parts of Loudoun County as well as red, rural stretches of the Shenandoah Valley where voters applaud the president.
Wexton, 50, grew up in Bethesda and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland and a law degree at William and Mary. From 2001 to 2005, she worked as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Loudoun County, where she tried cases concerning homicide and domestic abuse.
She prosecuted high-profile cases, including the 2002 trial of Clara Jane Schwartz, a college student sentenced to 48 years in prison for orchestrating her father’s slaying.
“You want to put your A-team on a case like Schwartz,” said Tom Mulrine, a lawyer who worked alongside Wexton. “It took a very good prosecutor, a very good prosecutor.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee seized on Wexton’s work in a TV ad that accused her of reducing charges against violent criminals, “even the illegal immigrant who abducted and raped his victim four times.”
The ad cites two cases where Wexton dropped charges as part of plea bargains, among hundreds of cases she handled.
“It’s another example of Barbara Comstock distorting and falsifying my record,” Wexton said. “I’m the only person in this race who has put violent criminals in prison.”
She also served as a court-appointed attorney representing children in abuse and neglect cases, among other duties, as well as serving as a substitute judge in Loudoun in 2010.
She stepped down the following year to challenge Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman. She lost by about 2,000 votes out of 50,000 votes cast.
She had an easier time in back-to-back state Senate races. She won a 2014 special election for the seat Mark Herring vacated to serve as attorney general and won a full term the next year.
In three sessions in Richmond, she has sponsored more than 40 bills that became law, including measures to increase oversight of day-care centers, make it easier for victims of revenge porn to sue, and allow community groups to dispense naloxone, a drug used to treat an opioid overdose.
Rebecca Geller of Fairfax Station got to know Wexton in 2015 after a store clerk told Geller to stop breast-feeding her baby. Virginia was one of only three states at the time that didn’t protect breast-feeding mothers.
Geller left the store and immediately started a push for a law to protect breast-feeding in public. She said Wexton’s personal lobbying of her colleagues, especially Republicans, helped calm conservatives worried that it would infringe on the rights of businesses. The bill passed unanimously.
“She made it really clear if I’m putting my name on something I’m going to work really hard to get it through,” said Geller, who has hosted an open house for Wexton and plans to vote for her.
At a Sterling community festival last month, MacBain, the public school teacher, said she was casting her vote for Wexton as a protest against Comstock and ticked off a list of grievances: Comstock won’t hold town halls. She only does photo ops.
And then she got to the issue that she felt most strongly about: Comstock’s support for the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, after he was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford when they were both teenagers.
“That tells me all I need to know,” MacBain said.
For MacBain and voters like her, Comstock’s backing of Kavanaugh contradicted the congresswoman’s claim to be a champion of women who experienced sexual harassment.
A Comstock campaign ad that aired shortly after the contentious Kavanaugh hearings features Melissa Richmond, who said Comstock believed her claim after she lost a Hill internship because she declined to meet former congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) at night at his home. Franks, who is not mentioned in the ad, has denied Richmond’s account.
“When I came forward to share my story, the first person to support me was Barbara Comstock,” Richmond says in the ad, which aired shortly after Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in an appearance that riveted the nation. “She believed me. And she stood with me.”
Richmond said in an interview that she met Comstock while they were both working on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and Comstock reached out to her after reading Richmond’s account in The Washington Post.
A spokesman for Comstock did not respond to requests for an interview.
But Comstock has said her support for Kavanaugh never wavered because she has known him for 20 years and knows women who have worked extensively with him.
“I do believe that Dr. Ford, you know, had a trauma in her life,” she said in an interview last month with Fox 5. “But I think it’s important that she was treated by the committee, by Chairman Grassley, with respect, she was able to come forward.”
Comstock, 59, grew up in Massachusetts and earned a bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. In the 1990s, she quickly ascended from a volunteer for longtime Rep. Frank Wolf, a moderate Republican who represented the 10th District, to senior aide and then to chief investigative counsel for a House committee investigating President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.
From there, she professionalized the opposition research team at the Republican National Committee, helped President George W. Bush win in 2000 and ran the Office of Public Affairs at the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft.
She was first elected to the state legislature in 2009 and served for five years before running for Wolf’s seat when he retired.
She introduced and Trump signed into law a measure that directs NASA to continue to support programs designed to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering and math.
The president also signed Comstock’s bill devoting $50 million to gang task forces, including one in Northern Virginia that works to combat MS-13.
The House passed a more controversial bill introduced by Comstock that would expand the authority of the federal government to deport or detain noncitizen immigrants who are gang members or suspected of gang activity.
Trump signed a sweeping opioids package, including a measure previously introduced by Comstock that would make it easier to collect data on opioid alternatives.
Melody Ferry, 47, a self-employed marking strategist who moved to Sterling four years ago from California, judges Comstock on what she’s achieved, not the fact that she shares a party with Trump.
“Personally, I consider him a pig of a man,” she said. “He offends people and he doesn’t really care, which I understand because the older I get the more my give-a-damn gets broken.”
But, she said, the economy is booming and the borders need protection.
“In order for our nation to become [the] economic power that [it] used to be, we need politicians to make hard decisions,” she said.
Yet for Democrats in the 10th, Trump remains the most effective strategy for galvanizing voters.
John Fabris, a 69-year-old retiree from Asburn, considers himself a fiscal conservative and voted for Romney in 2012, but Trump’s election made him rethink his 2014 and 2016 votes for Comstock.
“How he gets away with the things he gets away with is beyond me,” he said before calling voters on behalf of Wexton. “He’s an embarrassment.”
Fabris said he would forfeit the money he made from Trump’s tax breaks because he worries there will be a long-term fiscal and environmental fallout. When it comes to his vote for Wexton, it’s not personal.
“I don’t know that I’m anti-Comstock, but she supports him,” he said, referring to Trump. “That in and of itself is enough for me to go the other way.”