The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In first faceoff, Comstock and Wexton debate taxes, tariffs and immigration

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), left, and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) shake hands after their debate in Leesburg on Friday.
State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), left, and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) shake hands after their debate in Leesburg on Friday. (Pete Marovich for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton debated economic issues, immigration and Metro funding on Friday in their first faceoff in one of the nation’s most competitive midterm election contests.

President Trump’s influence on the race was on display from the start. Comstock, 59, declared the race was about “results versus the resistance” while Wexton, 50, promised to stand up to the president.

Democrats are trying to take advantage of Trump’s unpopularity in the 10th District to turn the seat blue for the first time in 38 years and potentially help the party win a majority in the House.

The sprawling Northern Virginia district stretches from Loudoun County and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties to Clarke and Frederick counties in the west.

Comstock supporters say she is the rare Republican who can overcome a potential blue wave through a mastery of local concerns and by separating herself from Trump on key issues, such as trade tariffs and wages for federal workers, many of whom live in the district.

The 90-minute debate, held in a National Conference Center ballroom in Leesburg, was organized by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. The action was frequently interrupted by applause for each side.

It was the first and thus far only debate between the two scheduled before the Nov. 6 election. Both candidates referred to notes, but Wexton, a state senator, read many of her answers and occasionally stumbled.

The two candidates split sharply on the tax bill signed by Trump in December, which is popular among the many businesspeople who sat in the audience.

Wexton opposes the tax bill, which she called the “Comstock-Trump tax scam.” She said it mostly benefits the wealthy, raises the deficit by $1 trillion a year and hurts the United States’ ability to compete with other countries.

“You all are businesspeople,” she said. “You know that’s not a sustainable model.”

She also said a reduction in residents’ ability to claim the state and local tax deduction will have a disproportionate impact on taxpayers in the affluent suburban district.

Comstock touted her vote for the tax bill, which — combined with an end to across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration — she said helped Virginia amass a $550 million surplus.

“Those are both measures that I advocated and fought for,” she said.

She wants to expand and make permanent the personal income-tax cuts that were part of the Trump package and expire by 2027, and increase tax cuts for small businesses.

On the issue of Trump imposing tariffs on U.S. goods, Comstock broke with the president, declaring herself a “free-trader” who has always opposed tariffs.

She said she has worked with farmers in the district to utilize bailouts offered by the government to cushion the economic blow. “This is a short-lived negotiating posture . . . so that we get better long-term deals,” she said.

Wexton said the tariffs have hurt Virginia farmers and businesses, noting that the Purcellville-based Catoctin Creek craft distillery halted plans to export whiskey to Britain because of the tariffs.

“President Trump has needlessly and recklessly imposed tariffs that are hurting Americans,” she said. “They don’t want a bailout from the government. They want to sell their goods on the open market.”

Turning to immigration, Wexton said GOP leadership in Congress failed to reform immigration and instead “sat on their hands” as families were separated at the border.

“President Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies” make it more difficult to pass legislation both parties can support, she said.

Comstock said she introduced the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act to target the transnational gang MS-13. It would expand the authority of the federal government to deport or detain noncitizen immigrants suspected of gang activity.

Critics said the legislation, which passed the House but has not gotten a vote in the Senate, would promote racial profiling, erode due process and unintentionally affect others, such as clergy members, who try to intervene with gang members. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union slammed the bill, although four members of the Hispanic Caucus supported it.

Asked in a phone interview after the debate whether she would have voted for the bill, Wexton declined to answer but said she supports “certain aspects of the bill.”

“I support giving resources to law enforcement to do what they need to do,” said Wexton, a former prosecutor. “I don’t support broad racial profiling and taking away people’s constitutional rights.”

In a district with 35,500 federal workers, Comstock and Wexton both oppose Trump’s call to freeze federal salaries.

Comstock said she is the only member of Congress from the capital region who has never voted for a shutdown.

Calling Comstock a “masterful political chameleon,” Wexton said the congresswoman voted to make it possible for lawmakers to reduce the salary of an individual federal worker to $1 and to roll back union protections for those workers.

She added that Comstock voted in July “to impose the very cuts in federal workers’ pay” that Trump now supports.

In fact, the House bill to which Wexton referred was silent on federal pay, but Wexton said after the debate that as a member of the majority, Comstock should have been able to get raises included in the House spending bill as they were in the Senate version.

On transportation, Comstock is sponsoring a bill that would extend federal funding for Metro at current levels, scaling back an increase in funding she proposed in December. The bill also eliminates her earlier call to allow a new Metro board to unilaterally revise union agreements.

Wexton raised an issue Democrats have previously lobbed at Comstock — her vote as a state lawmaker against a tax increase that raised funds to build the Silver Line.

“That didn’t stop her from showing up at the ribbon-cutting and taking credit for it,” Wexton said.

After the debate, Wexton supporters hounded Comstock for her continued refusal to hold in-person town halls. Comstock says they are not as effective as small private meetings she and her staffers have with constituents.

“Thousands of people have sent her emails and gone to her office,” said Renise Leresche of Potomac Falls in Loudoun. “She does not see us. It’s a canned response.”

Leresche is active with Network NoVa, one of dozens of activist groups that cropped up in the district after Trump’s election. Their enthusiasm helped drive record turnout in last year’s state elections that ousted Republican state lawmakers from Loudoun, such as James M. LeMunyon.

“There are people who are frustrated with the president, particularly for his manner and style,” LeMunyon said after the debate. “Barbara can’t change Donald Trump.”