Leonard Parker, passing the time over a ham sandwich at the Berryville News Stand, called over to a stranger at the next table: “Where’d you get that tan?”

Mike Torrez, in town from Winchester chauffeuring clients to a funeral, winced. “What’s that, sir?” he said.

CAMPAIGN 2014: This is the first in an occasional series about the race for Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District – a diverse, fast-changing place and a key swing seat in the capital’s backyard.

Parker repeated the question, and Torrez responded, tightly, “It’s natural, sir, natural color,” figuring that would end the discussion. With so many people moving from the D.C. suburbs to this part of Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley 80 miles west of Washington, Torrez hadn’t heard a line like that in a while.

After a few icy moments in the warm, chatty atmosphere of the Main Street gathering spot, the two edged toward common ground by talking traffic, trading tales of neighbors who leave home at 4 a.m. to get to the Pentagon. Then they got around to politics, and in this election year, when the congressman who represents a misshapen chunk of northern Virginia from McLean out to Winchester is retiring after 34 years in office, they found plenty to agree on: Congress works for the rich and the powerful, not for us. Nobody down there pays attention to jobs, which is the big issue.

Life in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District

Like much of America, the district is changing faster than either political party can keep up.

What finally connected Parker and Torrez was the disconnect that has turned the nation’s politics into a swamp of dysfunction and mistrust. Even in a district directly across the Potomac River from that swamp, the forces that have alienated many Americans from their government are clearly at play. In Virginia’s 10th District, as in many of the most hard-fought contests in this election year, a swiftly changing population, a sense that mobility and security are ever more palpably beyond reach, and mounting cynicism about the people who run for office are combining to stymie Democrats and Republicans alike.

Retired firefighter Matt Hoff gathers with his friends, Ralph Pierce and H. Baker, for their daily political coffee klatch on April 11 at the Berryville News Stand Coffee Shop in Berryville, Va. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Winning the 10th won’t be easy because the district isn’t what it used to be, because the people aren’t quite sure what they want, and because what they do know and agree on is that the politicians don’t get it.

“It’s the economy and bad leadership, not health insurance,” said Parker, 73, who grew up in Washington and Arlington and during a career in the drapery business moved ever westward, to Reston, then Leesburg and finally Clarke County. He votes Republican but doesn’t get why his party’s candidates focus so much on Obamacare.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) is retiring. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

What Torrez and Parker knew and liked best about Frank R. Wolf, the Republican who has represented Virginia’s 10th District since Ronald Reagan was first elected, is that he pushed to fund wider roads and extend Metro, issues absent from Fox News, but the first thing on the minds of the guys in the Berryville eatery.

“It’s the traffic,” Torrez said. “We’re out here because Ashburn became Cashburn — if you don’t have deep pockets, you can’t live there. You need to put someone in there who will do something about people spending six hours a day on the road.”

Wolf’s district looks on a map like a bent, hungry alligator, its body stretched across fast-growing suburbs from Loudoun County to still-fairly rural Clarke and Frederick counties, its jaws made up of thin strands of Fairfax and Prince William counties.

The 10th is a landscape of contrasts, from Potomac riverside mansions in McLean and Great Falls to increasingly Hispanic neighborhoods in Manassas, from the tract townhouse developments of Sterling and Ashburn to the vineyards and dairy farms of the Shenandoah. Among the district’s 758,000 residents, 20 percent are foreign-born, 13 percent are Asian American, 12 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are black.

A horse stable is seen on the edge of a crowded road near development in the Leesburg area. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Two dogs, Nikos and Fina, are walked along Algonkian Parkway in Sterling. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The district is a product of gerrymandering, a calculated effort by Republicans in Richmond after the 2010 election to create a safe seat for their party in ever-more Democratic Northern Virginia. The slivers of Fairfax in the 10th are the county’s northern and western edges, mostly affluent areas where Republicans often do well.

This is the nation’s 10th wealthiest House district, yet it is one of only 16 in the country that the Democrats have on their red-to-blue list. They have concluded that their candidate, John Foust, a Fairfax County supervisor, has a strong enough shot at flipping a Republican seat that the Democratic Party plans to pump big money into his campaign.

Mitt Romney barely beat President Obama here in 2012, but Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democrat, slipped past then-Sen. George Allen in the same election. Last year, more ticket-splitting: The 10th went by a hair for the GOP’s Ken Cuccinelli over Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat who won the governor’s race, but chose the Democrat for state attorney general.

Democrats think they have an especially strong chance in the 10th this year because Sen. Mark R. Warner, the state’s most popular elected official, will be on the ballot and will spend heavily to get his voters to the polls. Republicans think they have a built-in advantage because popular antipathy toward Obama and his health-care program pervades the area, regardless of income level.

Democrats know what they need to do — find ways, as Obama did, to boost turnout among their voters, especially newcomers to the area, immigrants, federal workers and nonwhites.

“The shutdown and the sequester are not abstractions in this district, but real pocketbook issues,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein. “The economy around these communities really took a hit in the shutdown.”

The Republican recipe in the 10th is not as clear. Some say the path to victory lies with the base, which will come out in force for an uncompromising social conservative like Cuccinelli. Others say the party must find a way to connect with minorities, especially in a place like Northern Virginia, where whites are already in the minority in Prince William County and likely will be by decade’s end in Fairfax and Loudoun.

In Chantilly in western Fairfax, Larry Bamford, who works in technology for the federal government, is eager to have a congressman considerably more conservative than Wolf, someone who will dismantle the Affordable Care Act, slash the budget, rein in regulators — and cater less to federal workers.

“You don’t have to be moderate to win here,” said Bamford, who favors candidates with a strong Christian identity. “Where I live, I’m surrounded by Democrats, but conservatives will come out to vote for the right candidate.”

But other Republicans look at the 10th’s shifting population and conclude that a candidate to the right of Wolf faces trouble.

“Every day, this district grows bluer,” said Tom Davis, who represented the neighboring 11th District in the House for 14 years. “Bashing the federal government doesn’t get you very far here; people take that personally. You cannot win this district with the same anti-Obamacare message Republicans are using nationwide, either. It’s not popular here, but it’s no silver bullet.

“This is a very wealthy district and the people have a lot to lose,” he said. “These are comfortable people, not socially hard right. They like continuity and moderation.”

The party remains deeply divided; candidates and voters alike speak of civil war. Jim Parmelee, chairman of the Northern Virginia Republican PAC, agrees that “the district is not as conservative as it used to be, so we need independents to win.” But he says the solution is relatively simple this year: “To get the independents, all you have to do is say, ‘I oppose Obamacare.’ ”

Kyra Fox, 8, left, and Katy Alvarez, 11, work on their round-off skills on Baker Street across from their homes in a working-class neighborhood of Winchester. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Parmelee believes the GOP candidate, Del. Barbara J. Comstock from Fairfax, can attract moderates by focusing on Obamacare and fiscal restraint, and she can get anti-abortion and pro-gun voters to the polls “because she’s very conservative on social issues too.”

But Davis worries that the Republican primary campaign — in which candidates talked of impeaching Obama, halting “his destruction of our country militarily, socially, culturally,” and ending popular election of U.S. senators — was fought so far to the right that the field “made the birthers look liberal. If the population at large were to get any of the literature from these candidates, they’d all be dead.”

The driving forces of Northern Virginia development — money and traffic — determine much of what happens at opposite ends of the 10th, in McLean, where well-to-do government contractors have pushed home prices above the million-dollar mark, and 65 miles west, in Winchester, once a crossroads where farmers brought their goods, now a city on the edge of Washington’s exurban sprawl.

In McLean, bedroom communities that used to have heavy concentrations of federal workers are now prime targets for teardowns and turnover.

“A lot of us are dying off,” said Jim Lynch, an officer in the McLean chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. The group’s membership nationally has dropped 45 percent in the last three decades, and in McLean, that trend is amplified by soaring costs.

The result is that public employees play less of a role in the 10th’s politics. At the last debate featuring the six Republican candidates, the words “federal workers” were not mentioned.

“It’s just hard to get anybody interested in politics,” said Lynch, a retired IRS employee. He voted in the GOP primary because he considers them the only party serious about trimming the debt. But he rejects the party’s focus on Obamacare: “It isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but the Republicans haven’t come out with anything better.”

What Lynch hears from federal workers and others alike is “a frustration that nothing gets done and nobody’s looking out for our benefits. There’s a hopelessness, really.”

In Winchester, the pain of two- and three-hour commutes to Reston, Pentagon City and the District helps keeps housing prices lower, which in turn lures people from closer-in communities who can’t afford to live near where they work.

People hang out along the pedestrian mall during a warm spring evening in Old Town Winchester. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

That has made Winchester’s downtown pedestrian mall a study in urban change, a place where a gun shop is adjacent to an organic market, where Dharma Yoga (“A yoga studio for your soul”) sits next to a storefront evangelical church. Winchester now has an annual chefs dinner, a $150-a-head benefit for the Free Medical Clinic featuring dishes by six celebrated chefs.

Despite the economic disparities, a common thread of betrayal by government binds many in the valley, a frustration so deep that some have given up. As of last week, no one has come forward to run for vacancies on Winchester’s city council and school board.

“I’d just like to clear out the whole mess of them,” said Ken Newbraugh, who drives to Winchester’s farmers market to sell the fine soaps his wife makes at their place in Cross Junction, six miles from the West Virginia border. “Don’t they see that there’s still a lot of people who aren’t working?”

Newbraugh admired Wolf for steering clear of the rhetorical warfare that passes for debate these days. “There’s a lot of anger and hostility around now,” he said. “The most damning thing was the Republicans saying on the day Obama won that their No. 1 goal was to make him a one-term president. That’s their great goal? I don’t know if his health plan is good or not, but it’s more than we had. If you don’t like part of it, then fix it; don’t just be a bully about it.”

He’s looking for leaders like those he learns about at Colonial Williamsburg, “people that went to Washington to serve their country, not to line their pockets like now. I just don’t have the feeling that anybody up there is looking out for me.”

Wilma Wilson sits on her porch talking to neighbor Bill Howe along Baker Street in a working-class neighborhood of Winchester. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Ezroy McNickle hangs out on a truck in an empty lot behind his apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Winchester. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Newbraugh calls himself a Democrat who sometimes votes for Republicans. Diane Fisher, who lives on disability payments in Winchester, says she tends to vote Republican because there are “too many freeloaders these days. We’re in the lower part of the economy here and people don’t have a lot of money. Everything’s going too fast, too much. We’re getting left behind.”

Fisher blames Obamacare for the current troubles. “It’s not fair to make people spend money they don’t have,” she said. “More people have health care now, true dat. But we need somebody who will stand up to Obama; he scares me.”

She can’t name any politician who she believes has her interests in mind.

Ashley Merrell, a 28-year-old mother of five who has been homeless in Winchester since October, works at McDonald’s but says that “even with overtime, it’s not enough” for an apartment. “I blame both the Democrats and the Republicans.”

She blames Democrats for picking the wrong focus. “Why are they spending all this time on health care when people can’t find good work?” she said. “If I have to choose between keeping my lights on or going to the doctor, that’s not even close.”

And she blames Republicans for lowering food stamp allotments: “That was just wrong,” she said. “I can’t feed five kids off $109 a month.”

Merrell plans to vote, but, like many people in the 10th, she’s never heard of any of the candidates. She doesn’t expect any of them will make things better.

Virginia's bellwether 10th District