In key Virginia House race, Comstock says reports of her death are greatly exaggerated

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Tenth Congressional District candidate, incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., participates in a debate against Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton on Sept. 21, 2018, in Leesburg, Va. (Photo: Pete Marovich for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
Tenth Congressional District candidate, incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., participates in a debate against Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton on Sept. 21, 2018, in Leesburg, Va. (Photo: Pete Marovich for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a bellwether Virginia district targeted by Democrats this year, is fighting back against the growing belief that her reelection campaign is a lost cause.

Her campaign released an internal poll that showed the race deadlocked between Comstock and Democratic challenger state Sen. Jennifer Wexton.

That’s a very different picture of the race than all the public polling has provided so far, which has shown Wexton up by an average of about 8 points. A Washington Post poll earlier in the week showed the Democrat up 12.

Republicans really don’t want to lose Comstock’s seat. The two-term congresswoman is one of the most politically savvy members of Congress, skilled both at running campaigns and at legislative strategy. She’s a woman in a party that has major problems with female voters. And she represents the 10th Congressional District in the Northern Virginia suburbs just outside Washington, D.C., that Republicans won in 1980 and have held ever since, but that has gradually become more favorable for Democrats as the area’s population has grown and become more diverse.

“If Wexton wins, we don’t get that seat back,” said Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party.

The spending in the race, which has already been off the charts, is slated to keep going full throttle, an indication that neither party thinks the race is over yet.

Outside groups on Wexton’s side — the Democrats’ congressional Majority PAC and Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC — have reserved a combined $2 million in ad time over the final three weeks to help her cause. For Comstock, the National Republican Congressional Committee is slated to spend $1.5 million.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton at her primary election night party in Sterling, Va., in June. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
State Sen. Jennifer Wexton at her primary election night party in Sterling, Va., in June. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“We view it as essentially tied,” committee spokesman Matt Gorman told Yahoo News. In the 2016 election, which Comstock won by 6 points, she “wasn’t up in a public poll” the entire race, Gorman said.

Wexton has had the TV spending edge to date, with over $4.2 million spent by her campaign and outside groups on her behalf, compared with $3.1 million or so by and for Comstock.

The super-PAC tied to retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan — the Congressional Leadership Fund — has not spent any of its $60 million budget to help Comstock and has no plans to do so, a spokesman told Yahoo News.

Comstock also faces a steep uphill climb, with the trend lines of her district’s voting patterns. Hillary Clinton won Comstock’s district by 10 points in 2016, and Democrat Ralph Northam won it by 11 points a year ago in the gubernatorial race. And Donald Trump’s approval rating is now 20 points underwater, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), representing a huge and possibly fatal drag on Comstock’s candidacy.

Comstock has tried to distance herself from Trump. She very publicly spoke out against his talk of a government shutdown last year and has emphasized her work on helping victims of sexual assault.

But “the president weighs more heavily on her this cycle than he did last cycle,” said Jacob Peters, a DCCC spokesman.

“It doesn’t really matter that she claims to have stood up to him. Voters want a Democrat who will be a check on him in Congress,” Peters said.

Turnout is expected to be way up from past elections, in this district as it is across the country, due in large part to anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and independents.

Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton and incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., shake hands after a debate on Sept. 21, 2018, in Leesburg, Va. (Photo: Pete Marovich for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton and incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., shake hands after a debate on Sept. 21, 2018, in Leesburg, Va. (Photo: Pete Marovich for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

FiveThirtyEight projects that 310,000 voters will cast ballots in the 10th District, which would be a massive increase from the last nonpresidential election in the district, when Comstock won her first election in 2014. There were about 210,000 ballots cast that year, and Comstock won by 16 points.

Comstock’s supporters are counting on her reputation as one of the best campaigners around. She had a strong performance in her only debate with Wexton. And she is a relentless retail politician, known for doing as many events and meeting as many voters as possible.

“Everyone nationally knows the environment is terrible for Comstock. But everyone in Virginia also knows you should never, ever underestimate her. She will outwork anyone,” said Tucker Martin, a Virginia Republican consultant. “It’s a fascinating test case of candidate versus environment. But in the category of ‘things you can control,’ she’s running the much better campaign. Remains to be seen if that gets it done in these conditions.”

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