Republican district clings on in Northern Virginia

LEESBURG Va. Mon Jun 30, 2014 12:31pm EDT

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LEESBURG Va. (Reuters) - Helped by an economic boom in nearby Washington D.C. and an influx of minority voters, Northern Virginia has in recent years become a largely Democratic base - save for one holdout.

The 10th congressional district, stretching from the tip of Washington to the rural West Virginian border, has remained in Republican hands for over three decades, resisting the political trend that has seen Virginia roughly split into a Democratic north and a Republican south.

This year, seventeen-term Congressman Frank Wolf's retirement provides Democrats with a long-awaited opportunity to take that seat. Still, analysts say Republicans look likely to hold onto it through at least one more election.

A 2011 redistricting, which lopped off pro-Democratic Washington suburbs from the district, has given Republican hopeful Barbara Comstock a fair chance of winning on Nov. 4.

"Certainly I think Comstock ... probably is a slight favorite going into it," said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst. "This is really the key race in Virginia."

Historically conservative, the district has increasingly gone purple in the last decade as the Washington suburbs encroached, bringing in more Latinos, Asians and other minorities as well as Democratic-leaning federal government workers.

The district voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, although Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won it by one percentage point in 2012.

The challenge for Comstock, a state delegate, will be to maintain Republican principles while appealing to government workers and contractors in the vein of Wolf, who was a strong defender of federal employees.

"Anti-government rhetoric doesn't sell here," said Republican Tom Davis, who formerly represented a neighboring district. "It's like running an anti-coal campaign in West Virginia, or an anti-oil campaign in Texas."

Democrats, on the other hand, will need to put some distance between Comstock, previously an aide to Wolf, and the popular retiring congressman.

BIG SHOES TO FILL

"If this is simply a hand-off, they lose," Holsworth said of Democrats.

Wolf was elected in 1980 and faced few serious electoral challenges. Comstock has aligned herself closely with him.

"I'm the one who has worked with him for five years," Comstock said in an interview. "Like Congressman Wolf, I have been about accomplishing and getting results for my constituents."

Democratic candidate John Foust, a Fairfax County supervisor, is tipped to give Republicans their toughest race here in decades. He says Comstock's voting record places her far to the right of Wolf.

"She is one of the most partisan, extreme right-wing members of the Republican Party," Foust told a meet-and-greet in the town of Leesburg, pointing to Comstock's anti-abortion rights views and vote against a bipartisan transportation funding bill passed in 2013.

Yet even if Comstock does prevail, politicians and analysts say she may not hold the seat for long. Wolf is leaving big shoes to fill and the demographic changes bringing the district further to the left show no signs of abating.

Not to mention that Democrats will likely benefit from the higher turnout that comes in a presidential election year.

"No matter who wins, this race will wind up being very competitive in 2016, too," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Republicans will likely suffer from population shifts.

In 2000, 83.2 percent of the 10th district was white; by 2012 that percentage had dipped to 73.2, according to U.S. Census data.

"The demographics make it shifting ground - big shifting ground," said Gerald Connolly, a Democrat representing a neighboring district.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Gunna Dickson)

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