By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Barbara Comstock is trying to separate herself from Donald Trump in her bid for re-election to the US Congress, but the struggles of Virginia Republicans show just how difficult it can be.
Comstock represents a wealthy district of the House of Representatives in Northern Virginia where Trump has become a burden, one that his opponent is wrapping around Comstock’s neck.
In local campaign ads, Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett takes every opportunity to link Comstock with the New York real estate developer and the Republican presidential candidate.
The strategy may be working. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election fact sheet, moved the Comstock-Bennett race from “Republican inclined” to “jumping” on Wednesday, citing Trump’s unpopularity across much of the district.
This is despite Comstock’s months-long effort to get rid of Trump. In April, the former lobbyist and state legislator said Trump was actually a Democrat who knew “nothing” about the economy.
She said in December that her plan to ban Muslim immigrants was “anti-American” and “a silly idea.” In March, he made campaign donations he received from Trump to charities.
Earlier this month, she said Trump’s boasts about groping women, revealed on videotape, were “vile.” She said she would not vote for him and urged Trump to withdraw from the race against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
But it may be too late to repair the damage, political analysts said, with just 19 days until Election Day.
“In a normal year, Comstock would be a clear favorite, but at this point his status as a favorite is in doubt because of Trump,” said Kyle Kondik, editor-in-chief of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the Virginia Center for Politics.
“He (Trump) was a gift” to her campaign, said Bennett, a 63-year-old real estate executive.
Bennett said Comstock, 57, waited too late in his re-election campaign to announce that he would not vote for Trump, arguing that Comstock’s views on immigration, abortion and climate change are “strikingly similar” to Trump’s.
When asked Wednesday about voters’ views on her repudiation of Trump, Comstock said that Bennett, if elected to the House, would be a “rubber stamp” for Clinton.
“I’m the only one of the two who … has a history of speaking out against people, whether it’s my own party or not,” Comstock, a Georgetown University-educated attorney, told reporters after a debate with Bennett.
“I have made it clear that I am going to be my own woman.”
The Comstock District, which stretches from the Washington suburbs to the Shenandoah Valley and the West Virginia border, is home to thousands of government workers, as well as many wealthy lobbyists and what Trump might call Washington’s “elites.” .
The area has been represented by a Republican in Congress since 1981, but has been a changing district in presidential years.
Bennett said Democrats expect about 140,000 more voters in the district this presidential election year than when Comstock was elected in a midterm election two years ago.
“We have a growing Latino community, we have a growing Asian community, and those communities are very unsettled by the rhetoric they have heard on the Republican side of the fence and they are really concerned about the direction of this country,” he said.
Kondik said, “This is one of the most educated districts in the country, and it’s filled with the kind of Republicans that Trump might well reject.”
A recent poll by the Wason Center for Public Policy in Newport News, Virginia, showed Clinton leading Trump between 55 percent and 21 percent in northern Virginia.
That suggests that for Comstock to win, some Clinton supporters will need to “split” their tickets to vote for Comstock, who made a name for himself in the 1990s as a congressional staff member investigating members of the Clinton administration.
Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said: “With the lewd tape, Trump went from being a drag on the Comstock campaign to an anchor.”