Here’s one case study showing just how difficult it’s becoming for Virginia Republicans running local races: A recent internal poll conducted for the campaign of Democrat LuAnn Bennett, who is running to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th congressional district, showed Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in the race for president by a dizzying 14 percent.
Yes, this is an internal poll, and as such is inherently biased toward Bennett, but with Clinton’s substantial lead in Virginia (the two most recent polls, by CBS News and Christopher Newport University, have her up 8 and 10 points statewide, respectively), this sort of margin is not outside the realm of possibility. So, even though Comstock still has a narrow lead in the polls, she will almost certainly have to outperform Trump in the district by double digits in order to win.
And while Trump was surely hoping to make up ground with a knockout performance in the first presidential debate, the gale force winds created by his wild swings and missed punches only made things worse. While his pugilistic browbeating of Clinton on trade was effective (if migraine-inducing) early on, by night’s end it was Clinton who stood smiling, not a hair out of place, as Trump dug himself deeper and deeper on a raft of issues, including his unreleased taxes, his shady business practice, his promise that Iranian sailors who taunt U.S. warships “will be shot out of the water” and the blatant racism of his years-long claim that President Obama was not born in the U.S.
Of course, gerrymandering at the state level means that certain Republicans have absolutely nothing to worry about, no matter how ridiculous and extreme they may be. Take the case of Dave Brat, the bespectacled first-term congressman who unexpectedly knocked off House Minority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. Although he boasts zero accomplishments as a U.S Representative, and has made a cottage industry of issuing crackpot statements (just last week, for instance, he told conservative talk radio host John Fredericks that the Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlotte were “radical groups that are funded out of George Soros’ pot of money,” while also insisting that the real “institutional racism” is perpetuated by Democrats who refuse to “get the Bible back in the classroom and religion back in the classroom”), Brat will almost certainly win his reelection race handily.
Still, there’s no telling what havoc the lead weight of Trump’s campaign might wreak across the commonwealth. Which is why endangered incumbents like Comstock (who supported Marco Rubio in the Republican primary) are running as far from him as they can. When asked by the Washington Post if she was planning on endorsing Trump, she replied, “If I change my mind, I’ll let you know,” and when pressed on whether she would even vote for him, she answered, cryptically, “I’m watching.”
And here in the 5th District, which many thought to be a lock for the elephants, there are increasingly strong signs that Jane Dittmar has a real shot at reclaiming the seat for the donkeys. Her fundraising has been unexpectedly robust (at last count, she had raised more than triple the amount of her opponent Tom Garrett), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designated her race “Red-to-Blue” September 23 and, while UVA professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website still rates the race “Likely Republican,” one of the site’s editors recently conceded to the Daily Progress that “problems at the top of the ticket could hurt down-ballot Republicans such as Tom Garrett.”
Ah, Donald Trump—you truly are the gift that keeps on giving.
Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.