VA-10 House

VA-10 Preview: Democrats Fight to Take on Most Vulnerable GOP House Incumbent

Rep. Barbara Comstock, first elected in 2014, is probably the single most vulnerable GOP incumbent in the House. In 2016, she won reelection by six points while her Northern Virginia district voted for Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 42 percent. In the 2017 governor's race, Democrat Ralph Northam annihilated Ed Gillespie 56 percent to 43 percent in the 10th CD. Down-ballot in the 10th CD, the "blue wave" swept out six incumbent GOP state delegates.

The prosperous and college-educated Northern Virginia suburbs like Loudoun County are shifting away from the Trump-era GOP with such velocity that, in short, it's difficult to see how Comstock wins reelection in 2018. She voted against the GOP's healthcare bill last spring and had $1.8 million on hand at the end of March, but she'll need some luck in the form of a severely damaged Democratic nominee to keep her job.

There are six Democrats on the ballot in the June 12 primary, but there are four with the resources and appeal to be contenders in the expensive DC media market: state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, former Obama Department of Veterans Affairs official Lindsey Davis Stover, anti-human trafficking activist Alison Friedman and Iraq/Afghanistan Army veteran Dan Helmer. A month out, Wexton is the substantial frontrunner.

Wexton carries some important advantages into the primary and general. First and foremost, she's the only Democrat with an electoral base: she already represents much of exurban Loudoun County, the population center of the 10th CD. Second, whereas 2016 nominee LuAnn Bennett lived in extravagant McLean and was easily caricatured as a wealthy DC liberal insider, Wexton is a former domestic violence prosecutor and a political pragmatist.

Wexton, a Leesburg resident who grew up in Maryland, was first elected to the state senate in 2014 to fill the seat of Attorney General Mark Herring. She isn't known for being the most natural or polished retail politician, but she has valuable endorsements from Gov. Northam and nearby Rep. Gerry Connolly. She's trailed Friedman in fundraising ($1.3 million to $925,000), but thanks to her name ID advantage, she likely doesn't need as much money to prevail.

Friedman grew up in liberal Takoma Park, Maryland, and moved from DC to Fairfax County last year to run. But her family connections could allow her to vastly outspend the field: her father's family made a fortune in the Levi Strauss & Co. jeans empire and her mother, Kristina Kiehl, formed a political advocacy group with Gloria Steinem. Friedman has raised $1.3 million, including checks from Jennifer Garner, Barbra Streisand, George Soros and Donna Brazile.

Friedman is running as a progressive activist who worked for People for the American Way, combated human trafficking and slavery in the Obama State Department and spoke at the Women's March. But she's almost totally unknown in the 10th CD. She'll likely be the only candidate capable of buying DC broadcast television for a whole month, but she'll probably need to attack Wexton as too conservative to have any chance.

Stover, 39, is the most polished of the quartet but also lacks deep roots in the 10th CD. She grew up in the Houston area and was raised by her public school teacher mother. She worked her way through Baylor and the Kennedy School of Government, ultimately serving as Texas Rep. Chet Edwards's chief of staff and in the Obama Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2010, she moved to McLean, where she and her husband teach Sunday school.

Stover runs a communications firm with Edwards (who lost in the 2010 wave) and is getting help from former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and 2014 Texas gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis. But she may have a difficult time conveying her by-the-bootstraps story to voters and differentiating herself from the field in such a short time frame. Considering the price of DC television, her strategy is heavily dependent on mail and digital ads.

Helmer, a Rhodes Scholar, and descendant of Holocaust survivors grew up in New Jersey and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He launched his campaign with an atrociously cheesy karaoke video and has raised $881,000. He remains largely unknown in the 10th CD, but last week Helmer released a hidden cam video of himself purchasing an assault-style rifle from a gun show without a background check that has earned some viral attention.

Helmer has been the most aggressive in attacking Wexton. At forums, he's hammered her on guns, specifically for her vote for a bipartisan compromise on concealed carry reciprocity in the state senate. But by spending resources to weaken the frontrunner, Helmer may be likelier to boost Friedman and Stover's prospects than his own. And Helmer is unlikely to be able to take Wexton down by himself; Friedman will need to shoulder most the burden.

Wexton hasn't yet put the race away, but the prohibitive costs of advertising in the DC market and her status as the only known political quantity help shield her from the competition. If she's able to run up the score in her own Loudoun County-based state senate district, it'll probably be enough to win a low turnout race on June 12. Friedman and Stover shouldn't be counted out entirely, but they're fighting for the same pool of undecided voters.

A wildcard in the final stretch is the Washington Post endorsement. Northern Virginia Democratic primaries are one of the few remaining venues where the Post's editorial opinion still counts for something, and its endorsement helped seal Northam's nomination last year. If the Post endorses Wexton as it's done in the past, it's probably game over. But an endorsement for someone else could give the race a late jolt. 

Comstock allies are readying for a battle against Wexton and believe video of some of her less flattering moments on the campaign trail could be used in fall ads. But they'd be elated to run against Friedman, who could be easily caricatured as a liberal Hollywood-backed carpetbagger. In any case, the Beltway-straddling 10th CD will be the most closely-watched race in DC and in this climate, Comstock will need some extraordinary luck to hang on.