GOP House Candidates Wrestle With Pro-, Anti-Trump Wings

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Congresswoman Barbara Comstock has called the behavior of her party's presidential nominee ``disgusting, vile, and disqualifying.'' Given her druthers, though, she'd rather not talk about him at all.

Comstock's arms-length tap dance with Donald Trump reflects the dilemma that Republican congressional candidates in Virginia and elsewhere are facing as they try to appeal to moderates and independents turned off by Trump without alienating the pro-Trump wing of their party.

Virginia presents a special challenge for congressional Republicans. They control eight of the state's 11 House seats. They must defend those seats in a year when polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton has a big lead on Trump. Making things worse, a court-ordered redistricting in the 4th District has turned a safe Republican seat into one with a big Democratic advantage. Democrat Donald McEachin is heavily favored to flip the 4th from red to blue.

Democrats are also mounting strong campaigns in the 10th and 5th districts.

The 10th District race, featuring Comstock and Democrat LuAnn Bennett, has long been considered a marquee matchup. The northern Virginia district, which stretches from the wealthy McLean suburbs inside the Capital Beltway out west to Winchester, has at best a marginal tilt in favor of the GOP. The heart of the district is Loudoun County, an outer suburb of the nation's capital that flips frequently between Democrats and Republicans.

Comstock won the seat handily two years ago, but Democrats say the electorate in a presidential year favors them, and several analysts this week moved the race from ``leans Republican'' to ``tossup.'' Bennett, a first-time candidate for public office, has held her own in debates with Comstock, a polished veteran.

Bennett has sought to link Comstock to Trump in those debates and in television ads. Trump is particularly unpopular in northern Virginia, where business-oriented establishment Republicans have long controlled the party. While Trump won the GOP primary in Virginia, he lost badly in the 10th District to Marco Rubio.

For months, Comstock deflected questions on whether she planned to support or endorse Trump. But when Trump's 2005 ``Access Hollywood'' video was released earlier this month with him making vulgar comments on his interactions with women, Comstock condemned him and urged him to drop out of the race so he could be replaced on the top of the ticket with vice presidential nominee Mike Pence.

Bennett said the condemnation is too little, too late.

``Trump's total disdain for women and disregard for the institution of marriage is nothing new,'' she said. ``For over a year he has revealed his disdain for Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, veterans with PTSD, war heroes, our LGBT community and many other groups of Americans.''

On Wednesday, following a debate in which she again failed to mention Trump's name, Comstock told reporters who asked her about Trump, ``I've made my statement there known.''

Asked how constituents have responded to her repudiation of Trump, she said, ``Everyone has a view, but I think that these two (presidential) candidates, I think people in the district realize we have two flawed candidates and I'm the only one who has been willing to stand up'' and condemn her party's nominee. ``You've not heard my opponent say one thing except she wants to be a rubber stamp for Hillary Clinton.''

In the 5th District, Republican state Sen. Tom Garrett has also been reluctant to talk about Trump. But he remains a supporter. The campaign supplied a statement from Garrett saying ``While it may come as news to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the 2016 election is all about the Supreme Court. ... This race is about preserving our Constitutional freedoms and our candidate is far better than Mrs. Clinton.''

Garrett's opponent, Jane Dittmar, said Garrett's condemnations of Trump's statements, while still supporting him, are ``woefully inadequate.''

``I couldn't see how anyone _ anyone _ could vote for Donald Trump,'' she said.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said it makes sense politically that Comstock has been more forceful in distancing herself from Trump than Garrett, because the primary results show Trump is much less popular in Comstock's district. He also said it makes sense that neither wants to call too much attention to the issue, because both will need to build a coalition of pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters to win election.

``They're trying to wrestle down two unwieldy beasts _ the moderate Republican middle, and the Trump Republican right,'' he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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