Suburban Brawl: The Fight Over Independents and Moderate Republicans

Vulnerable House Republicans like Comstock need to hold onto voters disgusted by Trump

Rep. Barbara Comstock, seen here campaigning in Loudoun County in 2014, was one of the first House Republicans this weekend to call for Trump to step aside. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

STERLING, VA — When news broke Friday that Donald Trump had bragged, on tape, about sexually assaulting women, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock was at her son’s wedding rehearsal dinner.

But within hours, she’d done what reporters have been pressing her to do for months: take a position on Trump.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for Donald Trump,” the congresswoman said in a strongly worded statement calling Trump’s comments “disgusting, vile and disqualifying.”

Comstock is one of this year’s more vulnerable Republicans, and along with Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, she was among the first House Republicans to call on Trump to step aside this weekend. 

Women in well-educated areas like Virginia’s 10th District — home to the wealthiest county in America — were always going to be a weak spot for Trump.

But within 24 hours of the release of the 2005 recording of Trump making lewd comments, Republicans were panicking that the GOP presidential nominee could endanger House seats where, up until now, GOP incumbents had been doing a better-than-expected job of insulating themselves from Trump’s offensive remarks.

“She had to be quick on the trigger,” former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said Saturday about Comstock, who’s facing a challenge from Democrat LuAnn Bennett

“She’s all of the sudden paying attention now,” Bennett said Saturday, her black umbrella shielding her from the afternoon’s downpour and a tracker’s video camera. “But this has been going on for over a year,” she said, referring to Trump’s habits of offending people. “She should have been out in front of this.”

Whether Comstock will have done enough to prevent disgust with Trump from trickling down-ballot is a question only time can tell.

Trump support isn’t going away

Asking suburban women at the Sterling Fest whom they’re supporting for president the day after the Trump video revelations yielded sighs. Shrugs. Staring at the ground.

Unless they were firmly in Hillary Clinton’s or Trump’s camp, women at this town fair didn’t want to talk about the match-up.

But Trump’s core supporters here didn’t seem to be running from their nominee.

“There’s been all these people that from day one have been hoping for that magic bullet” that would take down Trump, said Ellie Lockwood, 76, a volunteer at the Trump-Pence booth, which was next to the Comstock booth at the festival.

“I’m not sure that this is the magic bullet. It certainly isn’t for me,” she said, her over-sized “Make America Great Again” hat sheltering her from the rain. She was more disappointed in Comstock for calling on Trump to step aside.

Another female Trump volunteer, Sharon Sadler, had a bit more trouble digesting Trump’s comments — but not enough trouble to change her vote.

The 34-year-old project manager looked physically uncomfortable when asked whether his comments were offensive.

“I’m going to hope that he doesn’t feel that way, you know, deep down,” she said. “But I do certainly think it could be a deterrent for some folks,” she said.

Nothing new from Trump

Perhaps the biggest threat to Comstock from the Trump video revelations, is if GOP turnout is down, said Davis, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. 

Several young women at Sterling Fest said they’d be sitting out the election entirely in protest against Trump.

Comstock’s re-election success depends on reassuring Republicans and independents unhappy with Trump that they should still turn out and check the GOP box down-ballot.

Plenty of GOP-leaning women at Saturday’s event had already resolved not to vote for him.

“Four months ago, I would have been a Trump supporter. But he’s such a ding-dong,” said 52-year-old Kim, who was selling jewelry at the festival and preferred not to share her last name. “I already knew he was capable of doing stupid things,” she said.

LuAnn Bennett, seen here campaigning In Herndon earlier this year, argues that Trump and Comstock are in lockstep on policy. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
LuAnn Bennett, seen here campaigning In Herndon earlier this year, argues that Trump and Comstock are in lockstep on policy. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

But none of them identified any animus toward the Republican Party that would motivate them to vote Democratic down-ballot. That’s good news for Comstock, whom Davis said needs to run on her own brand.

Davis knows about that. He was elected to Congress in 1994 by running as far away as possible from Oliver North, who was running for Senate on the same ticket.  

GOP Bennett voters?

Democrats have been trying to convince voters that even if House Republican condemn Trump, they stand for the same policies.

Up until this weekend, neither Comstock nor Coffman had ruled out voting for Trump.

But both had made a point of showing that they weren’t enthusiastic supporters of his. Coffman put out an ad saying he didn’t like Trump very much. In March, Comstock, who backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary, donated to charity a $3,000 campaign contribution she’d received from Trump in 2014. She also denounced some of his earlier controversial remarks.

Democrats and Bennett have still tied Comstock closely to Trump on issues like abortion and Planned Parenthood. And that strategy will likely intensify.

Bennett said that “on issue after issue, they really push forward the same agenda.” 

“I’m going to stick to my message. And hopefully that message will resonate even more with the independent and moderate Republicans in our district,” she said. “Most of our Republicans are moderate Republicans. They’re not right-wing.”

Meanwhile, Davis, who co-chaired Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign in Virginia, hasn’t ruled out voting for Trump.

“I’m gettable for him,” he said, but it would still take a lot of work.

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