The race for Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s seat in Northern Virginia is tightening in the final three weeks of the campaign, with several independent political analysts moving the race to “toss-up” status.
Experts consider the district among the most competitive in the nation despite lackluster fundraising numbers from Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett and evidence that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump might not be the anchor on down-ballot candidates some had expected.
Comstock and Bennett will face off Wednesday morning for the final debate off the campaign and their first joint public event since a 2005 video of Trump bragging about groping women was released.
Trump dismissed his lewd comments as “locker room talk,” but Comstock called the video “disgusting, vile and disqualifying” and urged him to drop out of the race. Until then, she had not endorsed or repudiated the GOP standard-bearer.
Like her colleagues in moderate Republican districts across the country, Comstock has to worry that voters turned off by Trump will stay home on Election Day and cost her her seat.
The district includes all of Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties as well as Manassas and Manassas Park and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties. In recent years, the district has seen an influx of professionals — many of them women and minorities — who polls show are cool to Trump’s candidacy.
Comstock, 57, is finishing her first term in Congress. Bennett, 63, is a real estate executive and longtime Democratic donor making her first bid for public office.
The Cook Political Report this week will move the race to the competitive “Republican toss-up” category, according to David Wasserman, its House editor. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report already considers it a toss-up district, tilting toward the Republican.
“Both parties acknowledge this has become a very close race,” Wasserman said. “Bennett may not be able to match Comstock ad for ad, but Trump is uniquely toxic in Northern Virginia and could do poorly enough in Loudoun County to give Bennett a chance.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton holds an 11-point lead over Trump in Virginia and a 21-point lead with women, according to a new SurveyMonkey poll of 15 battleground states conducted with The Washington Post.
Recognizing the national climate, Comstock has tried not only to separate herself from Trump but also to portray herself as an ally for Democratic members of the Virginia delegation to the GOP-controlled chamber.
The congresswoman has maintained a lead in fundraising throughout the campaign and had about $2 million cash on hand going into the final weeks, compared with Bennett’s $90,000 balance, finance reports show.
“The Bennett campaign’s lackluster fundraising report is not surprising because she has few ties to the District and shows that this is a DCCC-based cookie cutter campaign very dependent on outside money,” Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer said in a statement, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Overall, Bennett has raised $1.9 million, including a personal loan to her campaign of $70,000, while Comstock has raised about $4.4 million, including almost $2 million from party committees, PACs and other accounts, reports show.
Bennett said she will have the money to compete in the final weeks.
“We are confident that we will have the resources necessary to continue to deliver that message these final few weeks,” Bennett spokesman Robert Howard said. “Dig beneath the surface of Barbara Comstock’s campaign and you’ll see it’s propped up by outside money from special interest groups, not Northern Virginia voters.”
Both candidates have benefited from spending by outside groups, which have poured more than $3.7 million into the race, according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
That total includes $1.5 million from groups that oppose Comstock, including the DCCC and House Majority PAC, and $2.1 million from groups that oppose Bennett, including the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights and has endorsed Bennett, recently poured an additional $230,000 into ads already airing in the district. They feature black-and-white images of mostly women and a message saying Comstock is “too right wing for Northern Virginia” because she wants to wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and opposes same-sex marriage.
In addition, Bennett’s campaign got a boost from Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, who rallied volunteers on her behalf last weekend, as well as three state Democrats — Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who hosted a fundraiser for her at a winery. Actress Marlo Thomas and Lynda Bird Johnson-Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and a resident of the district, visited phone banks for Bennett.
As part of a national media blitz against select Democrats, the Congressional Leadership Fund paid for an ad that criticizes Bennett for failing to rule out raising taxes and for pointing out that while in the state legislature Comstock opposed a tax-laden transportation bill.
Wednesday’s debate will be hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Fairfax County.