All around Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), her GOP colleagues are retiring in record numbers in anticipation of what they think will be a blue wave. Even her friend Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is on his way out.
Yet Comstock, a two-term congresswoman from a Northern Virginia district that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam won by double digits, is determined to stay.
In fact, she is raising money at a furious pace, trekking to more picnics and ribbon cuttings than ever and keeping a close watch on the six-way contest among Democrats vying for the chance to take her on in November.
“I’m healthy, my family’s healthy, my kids are healthy, I love this job,” she said, pointing to work on combating sexual harassment in Congress and MS-13 gang violence as well as remaking Metro.
She will not entertain any talk of retirement.
Friends and adversaries have seen Comstock’s tenacity going back 20 years, when she investigated Bill and Hillary Clinton as a Republican staffer, compiled a foot-high opposition research bible on Al Gore, and decamped to Florida for the recount in the 2000 presidential election.
“She’s refusing to give in,” said David Ramadan, a former GOP state lawmaker who didn’t seek reelection in 2015. “I gave up on the party. Barbara has not. She’s a fighter.”
And today, Comstock is in what may be the toughest fight of her nine years in elective office.
In her Capitol Hill office Monday morning, an open Diet Coke on the coffee table before her, Comstock reflected on her decades in politics and how work relationships and personal friendships have melded into a strong network that has made her effective.
When longtime Democrat Donna Brazile couldn’t find family and friends caught up in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Comstock “worked nonstop” at Brazile’s Capitol Hill townhouse to connect her with Bush administration officials, Brazile said in an email.
“We have known and respected each other for years not only as partisans but in a special club of women who have worked at the highest levels in national politics,” she said. “We don’t agree on many issues, but we consider each other to be worthy of respect.”
Last year, before a TV spot to talk about sexual harassment in Congress, Comstock’s phone rang. It was Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whom she calls Tony.
Don’t panic, he told her, but her dad had just been rushed to the hospital. Her mom went with him, but since she was cooking for Thanksgiving at the time, Kennedy wanted Comstock to know he was monitoring the pumpkin bread baking in their kitchen.
The connections stretch on. Wes Bush, chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman, is a neighbor and good friend. Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and national security adviser John Bolton are “people I’ve been through fire with” after working together in the Bush administration. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and political consultant Mary Matalin raised money for her first campaign.
Then there are friends she lost. In her office, she displays photos of conservative legal analyst Barbara Olson, who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, and conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne, who died a year ago this week.
“Those people taught me so much, and they’re not here anymore, but I can take everything I learned from them and keep doing these things that they cared about, that I care about and that make a difference,” she said.
The network helps explain why she has raised nearly $2.8 million for this race, outpacing other potentially vulnerable GOP colleagues, including Reps. Dave Brat and Thomas Garrett, both of Virginia, whose fundraising lags behind their Democratic challengers.
“I think for people who haven’t had tough races and now they do, it’s harder,” said Comstock, 58. “I have always had to run a marathon, so I’m not going from a 5K to a marathon.”
Still, Comstock may not be able to overcome President Trump’s unpopularity in her district, which includes parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, all of Loudoun County and a rural swath to the west. The Cook Political Report has characterized her race as a “toss-up.”
“Certainly, Barbara’s an adept survivor, but prospects of survival may not be so much a factor of her individual survival skills as the size of the wave,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), whose district abuts hers. “You can be the best swimmer in the world, but in a strong current, your swimming skills may not be sufficient.”
Comstock has walked a fine line regarding Trump, careful not to alienate his supporters while selectively breaking with him on issues that play well with moderates and women in her district. While she has largely voted to support Trump’s agenda, she has disagreed with him on a handful of matters, such as when she opposed legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act and rebuked politicians accused of sexual misconduct, including Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. In an episode captured on television, Comstock clashed with Trump in February over a possible government shutdown.
Trump wants to see Comstock win to help Republicans retain control of the House, said David N. Bossie, a good friend who is president of Citizens United, the conservative nonprofit, and served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
“[Trump] is the hardest-working man I’ve ever been around,” Bossie said. “Barbara Comstock is the hardest-working woman I’ve ever been around.”
A native of Massachusetts, Comstock was raised in a Democratic household, graduated from Middlebury College and interned for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) before finding her conservative mojo and moving to McLean to take night classes at Georgetown University Law.
By 1990, she was a stay-at-home mom and began volunteering for Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). He hired her the following year, and by 1995, she and Olson were running House Government Reform Committee investigations of the Clintons, including Travelgate, Whitewater and illegal campaign contributions.
The committee’s work unfolded in a windowless room in the Rayburn House Office Building, off limits even to cleaning crews. Comstock would often stay until 4 a.m., according to Olson’s 1999 book, “Hell to Pay.”
“They were fearless,” said Theodore B. Olson, the star litigator who served as solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration and was married to Barbara Olson. “I have fond memories of the two of them working all the time late and conspiring and laughing.”
Comstock deposed John Podesta, then White House counsel to President Bill Clinton. Years later, he told The Washington Post , “In the world of the Barbaras, you’d have to say Barbara Comstock is the good twin.”
Comstock and Olson bonded with Bossie, then another GOP Hill staffer investigating the Clintons. They called themselves the “three musketeers,” according to Bossie. Comstock is godmother to his oldest daughter.
After the 9/11 attacks, Comstock served as chief spokeswoman for the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft when he was championing the Patriot Act.
Afterward, she joined a law firm, founded a lobbying shop and, in 2006, helped raise money for the defense of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, whose recent pardon she called “long past due.” She worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2008.
She made the leap from staffer to candidate the next year, when she ran for the state House of Delegates. During her race for a second term, she supported Ramadan, a Lebanese-born Republican and the target of ethnic slurs.
Today, he is one of her emissaries to the Loudoun County Muslim community and praised her political skills, though he suspects she’ll serve in the minority next year.
“Short of a miracle from God, that House is gone,” he said. “Barbara is sort of the only hope of what the Grand Old Party was and should continue to be.”
Donors who want to see more Republican women in Congress have helped Comstock tap into national money.
In 2014, billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer and his network backed Comstock, Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). Executives from his company, Elliott Management, have given more to Comstock than to any other candidate, according to an analysis of campaign finance data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Through a spokesman, Singer declined to discuss his support for Comstock.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on preserving the Republican majority in the House, will make a seven-figure commitment to the race in the next month.
“I would never bet against her,” CLF executive director Corry Bliss said. “Period. Full stop.”
Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC, the fundraising arm for GOP women in the House and Senate, said donors like Comstock because she wins in a purple district perennially targeted by Democrats.
She speaks to issues that play well in her suburban district at a time when suburban female voters are abandoning the GOP, including opioid addiction and gang activity.
In a swing district where each party has about 40 percent of the vote locked up, Comstock is betting she can win over western Fairfax and Loudoun newcomers on policy and constituent services — and disassociating herself from Trump.
The only female member of Congress from Virginia and Maryland, Comstock has a great political mind, Conway said.
The day after her 2014 win, Comstock hosted a reception at her home, but while her guests celebrated, Conway found her sitting at a desk in the hallway.
She was poring over precinct results.
“It defines who she is,” said Dan Scandling, former chief of staff to Wolf. “When she bites into something, she doesn’t let it go.”