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This House Race Shows It's Not So Easy For Republicans To Separate From Trump

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., is in a tight race for reelection. This race could say a lot about whether moderate Republicans can distinguish themselves from Donald Trump.
Alex Brandon
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., is in a tight race for reelection. This race could say a lot about whether moderate Republicans can distinguish themselves from Donald Trump.

As Rep. Barbara Comstock marched in the Leesburg, Va., Halloween parade last week, she was trailed by massive trucks and buses decked out for Donald Trump.

The coincidental staging by parade officials was also an unfortunate metaphor for the freshman Republican's campaign against Democratic nominee LuAnn Bennett as well. Despite touting her independence, denouncing her party's nominee and even being praised by The Washington Post editorial board as someone who could work across the aisle, the biggest hindrance to winning a second term for Comstock is her party's presidential nominee.

Volunteers from Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock's and Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett's campaigns line up ahead of the Leesburg Halloween Parade in Loudon County, Va.
Jessica Taylor / NPR
Volunteers from Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock's and Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett's campaigns line up ahead of the Leesburg Halloween Parade in Loudon County, Va.

Also not helping in the final days of the race is a planned last-minute campaign stop by Trump Sunday night in Leesburg, part of dizzying array of stops as Trump tries to find one Democratic-leaning state he needs to move his direction.

Virginia's 10th congressional district is a good test for each of the party's closing arguments, and both have saturated the pricey D.C. airwaves with their messages in the final weeks. Democrats have tied Comstock to Trump at every turn, arguing that she didn't distance herself quickly enough from the GOP presidential nominee until after his lewd 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced.

But Republicans think the "check and balance" argument they're making across the country — that even if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, a GOP Congress can be a check on her policies — is the key to keeping this race in their column. (They are also bringing Bennett's business record under scrutiny.)

Ultimately, who wins this race could be a bellwether for just how good — or bad — a night House Democrats are in for on Tuesday. The district reaches inside the Washington area Beltway, taking in parts of the populous, more liberal Fairfax County (which includes the wealthy, somewhat more conservative D.C. suburb of McLean) through the more moderate Loudoun County and farther West through rural portions of the state to the West Virginia border.

It's exactly the type of district Democrats need in their column. President Obama carried it by 3 points in 2008, but four years later Republican Mitt Romney won it by just 4,218 votes. It's also one of the wealthiest and most highly educated districts in the country that has a growing Latino and Asian population. To make a significant cut into the House GOP's 30-seat margin, they have to win districts just like this.

"If Democrats have any hope of making big inroads in the House, this is a priority," said former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who once represented some parts of this district. "But to Republicans' credit, they have not backed off."

Neither party has. According to the Virginia Political Access Project, or VPAP, more than $11.6 million in independent expenditures has been spent here. That includes $4.5 million against Comstock and $5.2 million against Bennett.

"This is one of Trump's worst areas in Virginia," admitted Davis, who himself is a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. But, he pointed to the Post's endorsement as an example of something that could help Comstock bolster the argument that she isn't a Trump clone.

"Basically that's a Good Housekeeping seal of approval that she's not Trump, and gives independent voters license to vote for her," Davis said.

In reality, that Post endorsement wasn't completely glowing, but it did make the case that in the grand scheme of the future of the GOP, Comstock could be an asset:

"In the wake of its disastrous presidential nomination this year, the Republican Party will badly need elected officials willing to govern, not just wage partisan warfare. If Ms. Comstock can play that role, and champion vital regional priorities such as Metro, it would be invaluable. She has given some signs, if not yet proof, that she is willing; our endorsement is a calculated hope that after wrapping herself in a bipartisan banner, her actions will match her rhetoric."

But Bennett, who marched a few floats ahead of Comstock at the same Halloween event, told NPR in a brief interview that her opponent shouldn't be let off the hook and tried to tie her to Trump.

"When you look at my opponent's voting record, and you look at what Donald Trump is for, it's very similar," Bennett said. "Their agendas really tend to be pretty much alike."

The Democrat also argued that although Comstock has said she won't vote for Trump and called on him earlier this month to drop out, she only did so when it was politically advantageous. Her ads drive home that message.

"When he was making all the egregious statements about women, the disparaging remarks, when he called Mexicans murderers and rapists, she didn't walk away from him them," Bennett noted. "When he called for the Muslim ban, she didn't walk away from him then. I think it's too little too late. Not until he stepped over a very disturbing line, and his poll numbers began to drop precipitously that she began to walk away. So I believe it was more political motivation than core values on her part."

Comstock's campaign didn't respond to multiple requests to make the congresswoman available for an interview, even though she was at the same parade. Her campaign manager Susan Falconer did pass along a statement to NPR, arguing that Bennett was a Democratic crony and a carpetbagger who's made questionable real-estate deals that padded her own pocket.

"Our opponent hasn't lived in the district for the past 10 years and is much more comfortable campaigning with people from Maryland and Washington, D.C. where she was living at the Ritz Carlton until she decided to run for office," Falconer said. "Her campaign at this point is entirely tied to and supported by [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi and friends and out of touch with the 10th District which is why she received no bipartisan endorsements."

Bennett told the Post she has spent only "a night or two" in condo she owns near her real estate firm's Georgetown office and has lived in Virginia for 35 years. She owns a farm in Delaplane, Va., which was in the 10th District until pre-2012 redistricting removed it. Last December, she began renting a home in McLean, which is in the district. In the past she had her Virginia farm up for sale and had collected rental income for it, though her campaign has said that was for an apartment over her barn.

As of last week, both parties admitted this race was tight. Republicans hope it may have moved in their direction in the final days, as many races have, with Clinton's numbers dropping following the FBI letter that it discovered more emails.

Democrats have the better turnout operation in the state, and Clinton is favored to win statewide. That could make a big difference on Election Day. Either way, this one will likely be close and could tell who's having a good election night in the fight for the House.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.