Donald Trump

Jaffe Report: Comstock Fighting Political Riptide as Blue Wave Heads West

Based on polling, the congressional seat seems like Wexton's to lose, but if she fails to campaign out west, she could turn out to be the Hillary Clinton of 2018

What to Know

  • Polls show Democrat Jennifer Wexton with a lead of more than 6 percent over Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock.
  • Political analysts say Comstock, who previously won big in Frederick County, is now fighting a blue wave there.
  • Demographic changes in the western part of the 10th congressional district may help Wexton push ahead.

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes an opinion column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Go west, young Democrat!

That could be the new motto for aspiring Virginia politicians like State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who’s trying to become the first Democrat in 37 years to represent Virginia’s 10th congressional district.

For decades, Republicans have dominated the district — which stretches from nearby D.C. suburbs like McLean and Manassas, due west over the Blue Ridge past Winchester — by relying on strong turnout by conservative, rural voters in Frederick County, surrounding Winchester, hard by the West Virginia line.

Republican incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock won the seat twice by piling up huge margins in Frederick County. In 2016, she trounced Democrat LuAnn Bennett 27,900 to 11,677.

But now Frederick County is a battleground, and perhaps Comstock’s last stand.

"It’s critically important for Comstock that the western side of the district is energized," said Quentin Kidd, author and public policy professor at Christopher Newport University. "She needs every last vote out of those precincts."

Kidd and other political observers believe Comstock is struggling against a political riptide that already has washed away her western base.

"The steady march of blue and purple urban residents is moving farther and farther west," said Kidd. "It’s playing out in the 10th for sure."

The pitched battle has brought Comstock, Wexton and their activists to the doors of voters from Stephens City, to the south, to burgeoning new developments like Snowden Bridge, north of Winchester.

"The momentum is building for Jennifer," said Cleo Usmani, grassroots activist and chair of community outreach for the Frederick County Democratic Committee. "We see much more passion from Democrats than before. Jennifer has a good shot at taking Frederick County."

The GOP is hardly rolling over. The Frederick County Republican Committee’s website says it’s "Conservative to the Core." Chairman Tim Stowe said he "still sees a lot of excitement" among voters.

With less than a month until the Nov. 6 general election, the latest three polls have shown Wexton with a lead of more than 6 percent. The most recent Washington Post-Schar School poll reported a 12-point lead for the Democrat.

Based on polling, it may seem to be Wexton’s race to lose, but if she fails to campaign out west, in Frederick County, Wexton could turn out to be the Hillary Clinton of 2018. Clinton’s failure to show up in Wisconsin contributed to be her undoing.

Wexton’s negative ads have cast Comstock as "Trumpstock" for her lockstep support of President Donald Trump’s policies. Comstock has countered with ads charging Wexton with the standard GOP attack lines of being soft on crime and high on taxes. Polls show Wexton riding the wave of anti-Trump vitriol in the close-in suburban towns of Manassas, McLean and Prince William County.

Geography and demographics might be as important as politics and policy, if not more, in determining the outcome of the Virginia 10th race. Where Comstock is an entrenched, inside-the-Beltway Republican political operative based in McLean, Jennifer Wexton has built her brand as a country lawyer based in Leesburg. She’s the first Democrat from Loudoun County to run for the House.

I asked Wexton — a 50-year-old mother of two — why Democrats finally nominated a candidate from Leesburg.

"After twice running candidates from McLean," she answered, "maybe they finally realized it makes sense running someone from the center of the district, who knows the people and their problems."

Makes sense, since the region in and around Wexton’s home base of Leesburg is bursting at the seams, and Loudoun County is the wealthiest in the nation, according to the latest census.

"We’ve witnessed a major demographic change," said Kristen Umstattd, who served as Leesburg mayor from 2000 to 2016, "with new residents from Latin America, South Asia and Africa." She ran as an independent eight times until her last election, when she threw in with the Democrats. The party then helped elect her to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

"Leesburg is emblematic of what I see happening in the county," Umstattd said.

Political analysts also divine trends in the changing landscape.

"It’s not just more populace," said Dante Chinni, who directs the American Communities Project at George Washington University and writes the Politics Count blog for The Wall Street Journal. "It’s the kind of people filling up Leesburg and Loudoun: college-educated whites and immigrants with impressive credentials.

"Virginia 10th is a perfect example of a larger trend we’re seeing in the rest of the country," he said. "The Republican Party is losing its grip on these voters."

Two years ago, the day before the election that put him in the White House, Trump held a raucous rally at the Loudoun County fairgrounds, south of Leesburg. But Trump ended up losing Loudoun County and Virginia’s 10th to Hillary Clinton.

Comstock, first elected in 2014, defeated Bennett in her last election, 53-47. But Comstock lost Leesburg, especially the east side of town, where Bennett won big.

"If Wexton captures Leesburg with big margins, the rest of the district will come," Chinni, said.

Coming up in Leesburg, Wexton served as a Loudoun County prosecutor in the early 2000s. She lost her bid for commonwealth attorney in 2011 but won a seat in the state Senate in 2014.

"Leesburg has always been my base," she said. "Every time I go to the rec center or grocery store, I see friends and associates — people I have worked with. It’s earned me a great deal of respect, friendship and loyalty from a lot of people. I hope it translates to the ballot box."

Her issues? In order: Health care, gun violence prevention and transportation.

"I hear from a lot of young families with kids in the public schools," she said. "They want leaders in the state and federal governments who can work across the aisle to achieve better results in public education, solve traffic problems and create good jobs."

Neither Comstock nor her campaign responded to interview requests. On the issues, her website touts increasing defense spending; fighting for tax relief and working "with our district’s wide-ranging agriculture businesses."

Issues aside, Comstock faces a presidential problem exacerbated by her district’s demographics.

"Comstock is walking a political tightrope," said Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of The Cook Political Report. "She cannot afford to alienate voters in the eastern part of the district by cozying up to Trump. But she has to motivate pro-Trump voters in the Shenandoah Valley, or they won’t come to the polls.

“Barbara Comstock might be getting squeezed out,” he said.

By casting herself as an independent Republican, Comstock is putting herself in a political no man’s land, said Kidd, of Christopher Newport University. "She’s trying to find common ground where there is none."

Democrats and progressives have been finding fertile ground in the western part of Loudoun County, heading west to Winchester. The city at the intersection of Route 81 and Route 7 was once known for its apple harvest. Now it’s thriving on a revived downtown mall, industries along Route 81, health care and education. In 2016, Winchester elected John David Smith as its first black mayor and the first Democrat since 1988.

Students at downtown Handley High and Frederick County’s Sherando High School staged walkouts on Oct. 6 to protest Judge Brett Kavanaugh ascending to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That might not have taken place a few years ago," a Democratic activist working in Frederick County said.

The student walkouts were cheered on by Carina Naghib, a teacher who lives in the Snowden Bridge development with her husband and two children. Naghib, 34, moved to Frederick County with her family five years ago from Miami. Her family has settled in to the development north of Winchester and about to move into a larger home.

"Our community is mostly young families and totally diverse in religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation," she said. "We have 'refugees' from Northern Virginia and newcomers from China, the Dominican Republic and Thailand. There’s a mix of liberal and conservative."

How will she vote?

"I’ll vote for Jennifer Wexton and tell all my friends to do the same," she said. "If you care about women’s rights, health care, education and the future for our kids going forward, you have to go with Wexton."

She said she has neighbors who feel just as passionately about Comstock and support Trump, but that she’s feeling the political ground shifting.

"We have a chance of swinging the vote for Wexton," Naghib said. "I would love to see her have more of a presence in Frederick County. It would pay off." 

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

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