The First District to Flip the House: Inside the Blue Wave’s Bellwether

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Democrat Jennifer Wexton speaking at her election night party after defeating Rep. Barbara Comstock, in Dulles, Virginia, November 6, 2018.
Democrat Jennifer Wexton speaking at her election night party after defeating Rep. Barbara Comstock, in Dulles, Virginia, November 6, 2018.Credit: Alex Brandon,AP

WASHINGTON – After the first polls closed on the East Coast Tuesday evening, the U.S. television networks projected what would be the first district to “flip” blue in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. It was in Virginia’s 10th.

This district, which represents the suburbs of Washington and continues west until the border with West Virginia, has been held by Republicans continuously since the 1980s. But on Tuesday it served as the bellwether for a Democratic takeover of the House – spurred by a “blue wave” of anti-Trump sentiment in America’s suburbs.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican who was first elected to Congress in 2014, carried the district by 6 percentage points in 2016 – despite the fact that most voters supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

On Tuesday, though, Comstock was defeated by Democratic State Senator Jennifer Wexton by 12 percentage points, which was larger than Clinton’s margin of victory over Donald Trump here two years ago. Wexton was the first of close to 30 Democrats across the country to celebrate flipping Republican held-seats. And the majority of them, like Wexton, did it in suburban districts that supported Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

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The possibility of a Democratic upset was clearly felt in polling stations across the district on Election Day. Regardless of their party affiliation, voters who spoke with Haaretz were all convinced Comstock was unlikely to win. Two polls conducted in recent weeks by the Washington Post showed Wexton with a comfortable lead. To add insult to injury, the Post’s editorial board – which endorsed Comstock in 2016 based on her record in Congress – threw its support behind Wexton this time around. Copies of the editorial were handed out to undecided voters who arrived at the polling stations.

Janet Roseman, who voted and volunteered for Wexton, told Haaretz at one polling station: “You keep seeing people that voted for the Republicans for years but are crossing over to the Democrats this time. These are not regular elections about regular political issues. This is about the character of our country. People are looking at [President Donald] Trump and are feeling ashamed that this is what our president looks like,” she added.

Roseman’s words seemed to echo a short speech made Monday by former President Barack Obama, who chose Virginia’s 10th District as the final stop on his midterms campaign tour to help Democrats in key states. Obama surprised volunteers at Wexton’s campaign office by bringing them donuts, telling the cameras that “the character of the country is on the ballot.” He was accompanied by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who easily won his own reelection bid on Tuesday.

Former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock participating in a parade in Haymarket, Virginia, October 20, 2018. She tried to distance herself from President Donald Trump, but her rival dubbed her "Trumpstock."Credit: AFP

Obama visited many states and districts across the country ahead of the election, but his visit to Virginia’s 10th District signaled the importance of suburban districts like this one to Democratic hopes of recapturing the House. In 2008, Obama narrowly won the district. In 2012, he narrowly lost it to Mitt Romney. His emphasis on the “character” of the nation in his local appearance was tailor-made for the district’s voters, many of whom are current or former employees of the federal government.

‘He’s in love with dictators’

Barry Jacobs, a former Foreign Service Officer, told Haaretz that Trump “has shown disdain toward the people who serve and protect this country” during his time in the White House. In general, he added, Trump “disrespects people who work hard, invest in education and are committed to American values that past president were proud of. Because of his conduct, this district is going to flip [from red] to blue.”

Jacobs, who also served in Israel and held senior positions on the American Jewish Committee, said many local voters were also critical of Trump’s foreign policy.

“He’s in love with dictators like Kim Jong Un and [Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte, but he picks fights with Germany and Canada and too many other democratic countries,” Jacobs said. “That hurts our national security interests – people in this district care about those things.”

Tyler Posey, a middle-aged Republican voter, volunteered for Comstock’s campaign and tried to convince voters to give her another chance. “I understand that people here are mad at Trump,” he told Haaretz, confessing that he personally was also “not a fan” of the president. Comstock, he said, was a “rare kind of Republican,” one who had shown she was “willing to stand up to Trump and defend conservative principles.”

Posey mentioned instances when Comstock denounced Trump’s statements against minorities and women. He also noted that Comstock criticized Trump when he threatened to shut down the federal government. “It will be sad if one of the few Republicans who is willing to put checks on Trump when it matters will lose this election,” he said.

During the campaign, Comstock worked hard to distance herself from Trump, but Wexton successfully tied their fates by running ads that accused the Republican of voting “in line with Trump” more than 95 percent of the time. She also called her opponent “Barbara Trumpstock,” co-opting Trump’s political tactic of attaching nicknames to his political rivals for the Democrats.

Supporters cheering after Congresswoman-elect Jennifer Wexton wins Virginia's 10th Congressional District Dulles, Virginia, November 6, 2018.Credit: AFP

Roseman, who is Jewish, told Haaretz that she believed Jewish voters in the district helped contribute to Wexton’s victory. “People in the Jewish community are worried about the direction of the country,” she said. “This president doesn’t represent our values. We need people in Congress who will stand up and fight for those values, protect them from him.”

Early Tuesday evening, after the 10th District became the first to “flip” from red to blue, NBC’s political analyst Steve Kornacki said that the easiest way for the Democrats to gain a majority in the House was by replicating Wexton’s win in other similar districts across the country. And as more results poured in, the 10th turned out to be indicative of a larger trend of Democratic strength in suburbs that, up until the Trump era, were considered safe Republican territory.

By the end of the night, Kornacki highlighted the lesson that such Democratic victories hold, saying that the message voters in many suburban districts wanted to send on Tuesday was clear: They voted not just against Trump, but also against “anyone that was tied to him.”

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