Trump looms large in Virginia suburbs as Democrats look to flip key seat

Democratic candidates in the suburban enclaves of northern Virginia are hoping President Donald Trump's unpopularity ...

Posted: Jun 12, 2018 12:07 PM
Updated: Jun 12, 2018 12:08 PM

Democratic candidates in the suburban enclaves of northern Virginia are hoping President Donald Trump's unpopularity among the federal government workers who live here will deliver them a key House race.

Unlike other congressional districts, where the day-to-day machinations of Trump's administration feel a world away, the people here in Virginia's 10th District live with it. Though the district extends to the West Virginia border in northern Virginia, around 75% of voters in the district live in the suburban sprawl of Washington, DC, where one of the largest employers is the federal government.

That's why Dan Helmer, a combat veteran and Democratic candidate in the district, makes Trump part of his 10-second pitch as he approaches people on the platform for the 7:28 a.m. train from Manassas to Washington's Union Station.

"I think our country is worth fighting for and defending and I hope to do it again," he tells voters after voter. At times, he adds, that he never thought the fight would be "against our President."

Helmer is one of six Democrats running to face Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Voters here in Virginia will go to the polls on Tuesday to pick between Helmer; State Senator Jennifer Wexton, the perceived frontrunner in the race; former Obama administration officials Alison Kiehl Friedman and Lindsey Davis Stover; and two other Democrats.

There is a clear a reason for all the Democratic interest: Hillary Clinton won the district by 10 percentage points in 2016 and then-candidate Ralph Northam won the district in his governor's race by 13 percentage points a year later. Democratic operatives in nearby Washington see the region as a hotbed for Democratic activism in response to Trump and the example of the suburban district they believe is key to the party taking back the House.

Though the Democrats in the race have their policy differences -- Helmer, for example, thinks the others are too soft on gun control, while candidates like Wexton and Friedman believe they benefit from actual government experience -- the man in the White House a few miles away has voters on edge.

"This is a district full of public servants who understand what a fundamental risk this unfit president is to our district," Helmer said in between trains. "That there is a dark path ahead of us if we continue to have a president who is above the law, who is ripping up an international order we built."

Losing that centrish feeling

Helmer's candidacy appears to be a test of the theory that all press is good press.

Though he is serious and thoughtful in person, his ads have been splashy and attention-grabbing, at times eliciting rolled eyes from his opponents and even condemnation from the White House.

His first ad was a play on the move "Top Gun," where Tom Cruise's character -- with the help of his pilot friends -- sings "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" to Kelly McGillis' character. In Helmer's version, he is serenading -- admittedly poorly -- Comstock and belting, "You've lost that centrist feelin'."

The ad got him a lot of free media, but he wasn't done there. He followed it up with a sting-style spot where he easily bought a gun from a gun show and another in which he compares Trump to Osama bin Laden.

"After 9/11, the greatest threat to our democracy lived in a cave," says Helmer, who supports impeaching Trump. "Today, he lives in the White House. No one, even the President, is above the law."

The White House slammed the ad -- it was "nothing short of reprehensible," said spokesman Raj Shah -- but Helmer enjoyed the attention.

"People are really tired about politics as usual and Trump is a symptom of that," he said. "If you don't both show in your deeds and in the way you run your campaign that you are in fact different, why would anyone believe you?"

The other candidates are not as impressed.

Friedman rolled her eyes when asked about the spots, suggesting that she was focused on more important issues as she knocked on doors in a cookie cutter community in nearby Ashburn.

Money vs. endorsements

One thing Friedman thinks Helmer is tapping into, though, is the sense that Trump is a threat to the district.

"I can't imagine there is any other congressional district in the country where you knock on as many doors where people talk about having worked (in the government)," she said. "It is not just ideology. It is bread and butter for people across this district."

Friedman, who worked on combating human trafficking for the Obama State Department, is a first-time candidate who was motivated to run by Trump and now believes he "threatens every issue I have ever cared about."

Her candidacy has been well financed -- she raised a whopping $2.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission data -- giving her a significant spending advantage over her peers.

Where Friedman has money, Wexton has the endorsement of Northam, the popular governor who recently won the district, and the Washington Post editorial board, which wrote she was the candidate "most likely to chip away at partisan gridlock in Washington."

And Wexton, who has already won a state senate seat in the district, is approaching the primary as the front-runner. Though she has raised more than $1.1 million, she has only spent around $400,000, giving her the same cash on hand as the quicker spending Friedman.

She also told CNN she was cognizant of how much this race matters to the party.

"This is exactly the kind of district Democrats need to win if we are going to take back the House of Representatives," she said frankly a day before the primary.

She described voters as "saddened about the federal government" under Trump and said the people she is courting "pay a lot more attention at the federal level than average voters."

It's voters like that, Wexton and others said, who will decide Tuesday's race. And, they hope, stick with the party into November.

"If we can win VA-10," Friedman said in between meeting voters at their homes. "I think we can win back so many parts of the country we lost."

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