Never mind the eight Democrats — and counting — who are competing for the chance to oust Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) in 2018.
She also faces competition from the right: a former combat pilot and self-described inspirational speaker who has been a bit player in Virginia GOP politics but is trying to galvanize conservative voters in the era of President Trump.
Shak Hill, 52, of Centreville hopes to channel the fervor that helped Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart nearly beat out Ed Gillespie this summer for Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Hill has hired Stewart’s campaign manager as his general consultant and hinted in a Facebook video announcing his campaign that he will run in the mold of Stewart, who championed the Confederate flag and what he called Southern heritage.
“I love Virginia, her rich heritage of those who came before us fighting for individual liberty and the freedom to use our God-given talents,” Hill says in the video.
Experts say Comstock will be tough to beat given her strong name recognition, relentless campaign style and embrace of some moderate positions that polls show resonate with voters in the closest thing Virginia has to a swing district.
But they also say Hill embodies the possibility that Comstock’s efforts to appeal to centrists in the most populated areas of her district could cost her conservative votes.
“He gives life to that argument that she has to also worry about her right flank,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “She’s tried to walk that very fine line. And when you listen to Shak Hill’s complaints about her, he says she’s walked that line a little bit too far to the left.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won Comstock’s 10th Congressional District by 10 points in November, fueling Democrats’ hopes that they can unseat Comstock — a former Justice Department public affairs director and political operative — next year.
Comstock did not face a primary challenger in the 2016 campaign. She defeated Democrat LuAnn Bennett by six points, thanks in part to strong vote totals in the western, conservative counties of Clarke and Frederick as well as parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties. Bennett won bellwether Loudoun County by 165 votes.
Hill, a former financial planner and owner of a small publishing company called Guiding Light Books, unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2014, losing to Gillespie. He has publicly discussed challenging other Virginia politicians, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D).
He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1988 and flew combat missions in conflicts including the Gulf War. He and his wife speak publicly about her bout with cancer while she was pregnant with one of their sons.
In the Facebook video he posted last week, Hill criticizes Comstock’s voting record, especially her opposition to the House GOP’s bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. “Barbara promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, but she lied to us and voted to keep it,” Hill says. “It’s time to repeal and replace Barbara.”
At the time, Comstock said she was uncertain the bill would provide better access to affordable care that covers preexisting conditions without lifetime limits.
“The congresswoman is working with her colleagues on finding solutions to make health care more affordable, portable and patient centered,” Ken Nunnenkamp, her campaign’s political director, said last week.
In an interview, Hill said he voted for Comstock in the past but now considers her a “major obstacle and, quite frankly, an embarrassing distraction” to Trump’s agenda.
Hill said he wants to “drain the swamp,” echoing a favorite Trump slogan, even though the district he hopes to represent is home to tens of thousands of federal workers.
Comstock has declined to comment on any of her potential Democratic opponents’ candidacies so far. But her campaign released a statement pushing back against Hill’s decision to run and questioning his party loyalty.
“Last anyone heard from Shak Hill was last October when he was trashing fellow Republicans . . . as he was planning yet another U.S. Senate race,” Nunnenkamp said, a reference to critical comments Hill made to a conservative blog about Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and others who were mulling a run for Kaine’s seat.
Nunnenkamp called Hill “a legend in his own mind and a perennial, failed candidate.”
Hill is carrying $116,000 in debt from the 2014 Senate race, according to campaign reports. He said he loaned himself those funds and will not raise money to repay himself through his congressional campaign.
In response, Hill said the items came from an automatic reposting service that scans the Internet for stories relevant to his potential customers. He said he has known for months that some unsavory articles can slip through, and failed to catch them all before his campaign launch.