The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In anti-Trump district, Comstock keeps her distance from presumptive nominee

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), second from left, checks out the Korean bell as she greets Korean American voters at the Korean Bell Garden in Vienna. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) would love to talk about Donald Trump.

Donald “Skip” Trump, that is — the executive director of a cancer institute in Northern Virginia, whose name came up recently as Comstock toured a research lab at George Mason University.

That other Donald Trump — the one who wants to win the White House, temporarily ban Muslims and deport undocumented immigrants — is one Comstock is trying to ignore as she seeks a second term in her diverse Virginia district.

As much as any down-ballot GOP incumbent, Republicans say, Comstock has girded her campaign to withstand potential voter defections as a result of having Trump at the top of the ticket. She campaigned hard for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who trounced Trump in her district during Virginia’s March 1 primary. She has distanced herself from the New York billionaire at every opportunity. And since taking office in January, she has attended just about every parade, festival, business roundtable and swearing-in to which she is invited.

“I’m moving beyond the presidential race,” Comstock, 56, said at George Mason. “I’m looking past all that.”

Democrats view Comstock’s swing district, which leans slightly Republican and has a large number of independents, as one they must win to regain control of the House. Ousting Comstock seems more likely as a result of Trump’s ascension, Democrats say, but remains a challenge — especially because party nominee LuAnn Bennett is a first-time candidate who is largely unknown.

Comstock has joined Democrats in blocking her party’s demands for cuts to federal pay and Metro funding — issues that are important to her Northern Virginia constituents. She said she was battling fellow Republicans on National Institutes of Health funding as well. She pushes for science and math educational programs for girls, and she runs a leadership program for young women.

She touts herself as something of a mole inside the GOP, a valuable player for a region otherwise represented by Democrats.

“The House of Representatives is going to stay in Republican hands,” she predicted, arguing that Northern Virginians need a champion in the majority to fight for their interests. As for who wins the White House, she says it shouldn’t matter in her race and is not one of the top issues that voters want to discuss when she knocks on their doors.

Bennett, the 62-year-old ex-wife of former congressman James P. Moran, is hoping she’s wrong.

“I think the top of the ticket is going to impact the district a lot,” Bennett told Todd Gallant, the owner of a local tutoring company, at a Loudoun County job fair this past weekend. Gallant, a Republican, said he cannot vote for Trump and has “no idea” what he will do on Election Day.

Stretching from rural Winchester to suburban Fairfax, the 10th District is increasingly economically and racially mixed. Relative affordability and a healthy economy have drawn ­Latino and Asian immigrants as well as transplants from other states.

The population growth has made the area, along with the rest of Northern Virginia, increasingly Democratic. But many voters in the district are independent, placing more importance on a candidate's ability to get things done rather than ideology.

To win, Comstock needs voters such as Gallant to vote for her — but she also needs the 29 percent of 10th District’s primary voters who supported Trump.

“Democrats will try to make her choose every time Trump says something controversial,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Securing Trump’s votes while attracting a good number of non-Trump backers requires a delicate balancing act all the way to Election Day.”

Bennett and other Democrats say Comstock’s opposition to equal-pay legislation, immigration reform and abortion access mirrors Trump’s. Voters who oppose Trump should oppose Comstock, they argue, since she is a loyal member of the party that nominated him.

But following the lead of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Comstock has neither endorsed nor renounced the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Instead, she says he has yet to earn her vote.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which ranks congressional races, has changed its prediction of the 10th District race from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican” based solely on Trump’s candidacy.

Comstock and her fellow Republicans have attacked Bennett for living outside the district as recently as last fall. The Democrat owns a farm in Delaplane, Va., which was in the 10th District until boundary lines were redrawn in 2011. She also owns a condo and real estate business in the District, and she began renting a home in McLean in December.

She thinks that voters will understand the reasons she has spent much time in Washington — she took over her first husband’s company after he died of leukemia. She said her regional connections will be valuable to constituents.

But she acknowledges that the congresswoman has stronger name recognition.

“She’s very good at going to festivals,” Bennett said.

Bennett launched her campaign in December after Democrats spent months searching for a candidate to take on Comstock. She's still introducing herself and raising the money she will need to have a visible presence in the expensive local media market. Her campaign website is bare-bones at best — there is a biography, but no endorsements or policy positions.

A super PAC affiliated with House Democrats has reserved nearly $900,000 in television airtime for the final weeks of the campaign. Comstock, however, has raised more than $2.3 million for her reelection, spent $742,000 and has reserved $1 million in television advertising for this fall.

Bennett has raised a little over half a million dollars and spent less than a quarter of that.

At the 10th District Democratic Convention in Sterling on May 14, Bennett was greeted with cheers and hugs.

“This is our biggest opportunity to take the 10th Congressional District,” said Kannan Srinivasan, treasurer for the Loudoun County Democrats. “It’s up to us to make it happen.”

But the challenge Bennett faces was apparent during Comstock’s tour of the laboratories at George Mason University.

Brianna Kim, a 22-year-old research specialist, showed her how to turn a urine sample into a pellet ready for Lyme testing. An Asian American who says she would never vote for Trump, Kim should be a prime recruit for Bennett. But her sister interned in Comstock’s office, and Kim says she will probably vote for the congresswoman. “It’s important that she is investing time in our science research,” she said.

As for Trump, she said, “I don’t think that reflects on her at all.”