News & Politics

In Virginia’s 10th District, It’s Hillary Clinton’s Race to Lose

Why all local politics in Virginia have become national.

The race between Barbara Comstock and John Foust, left, has been waged over, or by, old friends and enemies like Clinton, Gingrich, McAuliffe, and Begala. Photo-Illustration by Gluekit. Photograph of Comstock and Foust by Tom Williams/Newscom; Clinton by Benoit Tessier/Landov; Gingrich by AJM/Landov; McAuliffe by Kevin Lamarque/Newscom; Begala by Carrie Devorah/Newscom.

For more than a year, one name has trumped all others in Virginia politics: Hillary.

Hillary Clinton’s first test,” was how Politico characterized Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign last summer, suggesting it was merely a dry run for the consultants, pollsters, bundlers, and other moving parts of Hillary’s 50-state 2016 vehicle. Or as another website asked: Is McAuliffe “nothing more than Hillary’s stalking horse?”

Now comes the congressional race in Virginia’s 10th District, in which the Republican candidate, Barbara Comstock, a flame-throwing conservative Republican state delegate, embellished her primary win by bashing the Clintons and vowing to “get to the bottom of the truth in Benghazi.” Meanwhile, Comstock’s opponent, Fairfax County supervisor John Foust, is getting help from ’90s-era Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala, who’s been issuing poison tweets about Comstock.

Virginia’s politics isn’t being stalked; it’s been kidnapped.

The increasingly national flavor of the Commonwealth’s local elections is partly a function of its DC suburbs. McAuliffe, Comstock, and Begala—as well as GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, running for the US Senate against Mark Warner, and Newt Gingrich, a longtime supporter of Comstock—call Northern Virginia home.

When they run for office, they end up squaring off against old federal-level foes. As an aide to Representative Frank Wolf in the early 1990s, Comstock made her name investigating the Clintons. She triggered the minor scandal known as Travelgate and had a hand in Filegate and Monicagate. “It’s as if these old Beltway grudge matches are being rehashed where so many of these players now live,” says David Wasserman, with the Cook Political Report.

Another reason national politics has intruded is that Virginia increasingly looks like the nation. Once “solid South,” the state has become a bellwether. “There’s no better laboratory,” says a Democratic Party operative.

The 10th District is Virginia in microcosm. Spanning the urban-oriented enclaves of Fairfax and the apple orchards around Winchester, it leans left on its eastern end and squats solidly Republican in the west. The area in between, around Dulles and the exurbs of Leesburg, bulges with Asian and Hispanic newcomers. “If you want to take the temperature of the country,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “this might be a good district to pick.”

Those demographics mean the fight for the district’s seat will produce more partisan heat than its constituents bargained for. The Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees have set aside more than $2 million each to contest this small scrap of battleground.

But the 10th’s political diversity may guarantee residents the local election they deserve. Already, Comstock has ditched her anti-Clinton rhetoric to appeal to moderate suburbanites. “I’m a doer and not interested in continuing these fights,” she told Washingtonian.

Foust is still trying to stick Comstock with the GOP’s entire ’90s tally—“She spent four years and over $80 million to investigate the Clintons and found basically nothing,” he says—but to win in November, he’ll also need to address jobs, health care, and traffic.

Not that he’d refuse if Hillary showed up to campaign for him. Says Foust: “I definitely would welcome that.”

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe. This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.