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The GOP’s Hopes of Reclaiming the White House Start in a Small Corner of Fairfax

In February, Jennifer Chronis, an IBM executive from Great Falls, announced she was running as a Republican for supervisor on the Fairfax County board from the Dranesville district, along the county’s northern tier. The seat, occupied by Democrat John Foust, represents one of ten board votes on school budgets and property taxes but also entails arguing over the need for dual left-turn lanes from Route 7 onto Georgetown Pike.

Chronis, a former Army lieutenant colonel, had never been active in politics. Yet by mid-September, she had raised $243,181.40. That’s not nearly a record in the wealthy county, where board races’ budgets can rival those for Congress, but at one point she outpaced Foust by two to one. Her donor sheet, furthermore, is filled with familiar names in the national GOP: George W. Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, former Republican National Committee chair (and 2017 gubernatorial candidate) Ed Gillespie, Bush 41 attorney general William P. Barr, and former Michigan governor John Engler, now president of Business Roundtable.

Foust has mostly erased Chronis’s funding lead, thanks in part to a five-figure donation from the firefighters’ union local. But her initial success shows how the national red/blue battle has ignited Northern Virginia politics. A lock for Republicans just a decade ago, Virginia has keyed President Obama’s wins in the past two national elections. In off-year elections, the GOP’s road to restoration runs—like Civil War campaigns that hinged on a melee in a corn patch—through places like Dranesville.

“It matters less who the supervisor is,” says Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia tech entrepreneur who ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican in 2013. “But if we can’t win Virginia, we’re not going to win the White House. And if we can’t win Fairfax, we can’t win Virginia.”

Dranesville looks like a choice spot to drive their wedge. Foust, a McLean attorney, is the first Democrat to be reelected to the Dranesville seat. But last November, he stumbled in his bid to replace Republican representative Frank Wolf, losing to Wolf’s protégé, three-term delegate Barbara Comstock, by 16 percentage points. “It made it more likely for them to target me,” Foust says. “They introduced me to the congressional district with $5 million of negative advertising. Now they want to see if they can get [more] return on their investment.”

With just a year until she faces voters again herself, Comstock has put considerable energy into Chronis’s race. “She’s been as helpful as she can possibly be,” says Chronis. Comstock’s former political director and finance director now work for Chronis, and the congresswoman has come to Dranesville to campaign.

A Chronis win on November 3 would boost Comstock’s status as the state’s best political organizer; it could also put paid to Foust, or others contemplating a run for her seat. “If she eliminates the farm team,” says Snyder, “it preserves her seat for a long time to come.”

Whoever wins, it’s now a mistake to call any race in Northern Virginia small. “You used to have national-party people who lived in Virginia but were never involved,” says Snyder. “Now they’re going to a supervisor’s fundraiser, because it matters.”

This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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Paul O'Donnell

Freelance writer Paul O’Donnell is @paulwodonnell on Twitter.