correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported candidate Dan Helmer’s position on health care. This version is updated.
FREDERICK COUNTY, Va. — Tighten gun laws. Reform campaign finance laws. Increase the minimum wage.
Seven of the Democrats running to unseat Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) agreed on nearly every issue lobbed at them Saturday in the first major forum of the primary, except one: how to beat the congresswoman.
“Barbara Comstock often talks like us and always votes like them,” said Alison Friedman, a former anti-human trafficking official at the State Department.
“I’m ready to paint a stark contrast with her,” said Army veteran Dan Helmer.
“The way to beat her is to steal her voters,” said Deep Sran, an educator who believes minority voters and small-business owners are the key to winning the district.
They were joined onstage by scientist Julia Biggins, former Obama administration official Lindsey Davis Stover, former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier and state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (Loudoun), the only elected official in the group. (A physician, Shadi Ayyas, is also running but filed too late to participate in the forum.)
An audience of more than 200 people hooted most for take-downs of President Trump and his administration as snow fell outside James Wood Middle School in Frederick County.
The conservative county full of Comstock voters surrounds a spot of blue in Winchester, a city where activists energized by Trump’s election and the Women’s March formed an Indivisible group that helped organize the forum.
A huge inflatable bird stood outside the auditorium next to a sign heralding “Congresswoman Comstock Chicken” from the activist group Dump Comstock.
Harnessing the enthusiasm that fueled Gov. Ralph Northam’s nine-point win and nearly flipped the balance of power in the House of Delegates in 2017, is the challenge facing Democrats vying for the party nomination.
Days after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the candidates echoed each others’ calls to expand background checks, ban assault weapons and block people on the no-fly list from having guns.
Wexton, who is in the middle of the legislative session in Richmond, said gun violence will not sway Republicans in Congress or the General Assembly.
“We’re not going to change their minds on this issue,” Wexton said, “we need to change their seats. . . . We need to stay angry, we need to stay outraged. Children are dying, they’re being murdered just for going to school in the morning.”
Laws can’t stop all shootings, but, she asked, don’t they want to stop some? “Yes!” several people called out from the audience.
Stover said that of House members who received donations from the NRA, Comstock is in the top 10 — which, Friedman said, puts Comstock in the pocket of special interests.
Friedman’s mother has a gun in her home in rural Oklahoma. “But that right is not in conflict with my ability to send my daughter to public school and know that she’s safe,” she said.
Biggins called for the repeal of the “ Dickey amendment,” which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from performing gun violence research.
The candidates’ answers highlighted a dilemma faced by Democrats: energize enough party loyalists to break out of the crowded primary without losing moderate and independent voters in the general election.
“What we heard is Democrats playing to the far left base,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the National Republican Committee in Virginia, who attended the forum.
For example, Helmer’s military service may appeal to conservative parts of the district, but he also called for Trump’s impeachment and a “Medicare for all option.”
He said he has seen first hand the consequences of unwise military action: “It’s inscribed on the headstones of dear friends.”
A quip from Pelletier fell flat among activists working to turn out young voters.
“Way back in the ’80s before some of you up here were born . . .” he began one answer.
Shipley noted the lack of time devoted to issues specific to the 10th District, which includes all of Loudoun County and parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties, as well as rural counties on the West Virginia border.
Sran acknowledged Comstock’s relentless courting of minority groups in the district. His family came to the United States from India before he was born in Maryland.
“Never in my life in Montgomery County, Maryland, did I worry about them,” he said, referring to Trump’s travel ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries. “For 46 years. Now when I see a Muslim family, a Sikh family, a Hindu family, for the first time in my life I worry about them.”
The way to fix that, he said, is to elect candidates who reflect the nation as a whole.
Candidates repeatedly invoked Trump and tried to tie Comstock to him, but in her last reelection race, the congresswoman’s steady focus on local issues, from transportation to MS-13 gang violence, helped her win.
Near the end of the 1½ -hour forum, Stover was the first candidate to mention Metro funding, which Comstock has tried to address through legislation.
Each of the seven Democrats on stage pledged to support the winner of the primary, a bid for unity in the mold of Tom Perriello, who lost to Northam last year but immediately endorsed him.
“We need to get our swagger back,” Sran said, rallying the crowd. “We have the truth on our side. . . . There are no Roy Moores and Donald Trumps anywhere. We’re just better.”
The primary is June 12.