Barbara Comstock, the Republican House candidate for Virginia’s diverse Tenth congressional district in the suburbs and exurbs of Washington, lost the first thing she ever ran for: a spot on her high school cheerleading team. “After that, I was like ‘I’m never doing anything again,’” she jokes.
Comstock, 55, says she spends a lot of time reflecting on her political career as a woman in a man’s world. She cites Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto, Lean In, at least four times within 20 minutes.
She finds that men in politics are often “self-appointed”—they’ve planned their rise to power since they were 14. In contrast, she was shocked when her former boss, Rep. Frank Wolf, asked her to run for delegate in Virginia’s state house in 2008.
Now it’s six years later, and she’s in a tight and closely watched race to replace Wolf as he retires after 34 years in office. Politicians on both sides have been eyeing 75-year-old Wolf’s seat in the important swing district for years.
Her girlfriends told her she was crazy to run for delegate back then. She ended up announcing her candidacy by mistake. The house speaker misunderstood their conversation while she was still considering her options, and told a large crowd at a Republican fundraiser that she was running.
“Everybody clapped,” Comstock says. “And I said, ‘Okay, that’s sounds okay—nobody laughed.’”
Gender has been a focal issue in this campaign. Comstock and her Democratic opponent, Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, are doing bitter battle for the support of the district’s educated, career-focused female population.
In August, Foust said that Comstock had never had a “real job.” Although he claims he was referring to her jobs in partisan politics, Comstock’s campaign attacked this as a sexist remark. “It was offensive and demeaning,” Comstock says. “I think it was meant that way. “
Meanwhile Foust zeroed in on Comstock’s record on abortion, trying to cast her as an extremist for once voting to require ultrasounds before receiving an abortion. She is “obsessed with restricting women’s reproductive rights,” he said at a recent debate.
But lately Comstock tends to stray away from social issues, saying there are “good people of good faith on both sides.” She focuses on jobs, the economy, tax cuts for families and small businesses, and her record of legislation targeting human trafficking.
In addition to working as a close aide to Wolf, Comstock also worked for the Republican National Committee doing opposition research, joined the Justice Department as a spokesperson after losing a friend in 9/11, and worked as a lobbyist for Carnival Cruise Lines.
At the RNC, Comstock helped dig up dirt on Al Gore and the Clintons. Former Clinton adviser Paul Begala now claims she has an “almost sick, sort of stalker-like obsession with President Clinton.”
But Comstock wants to be seen as a committed bipartisan, not a GOP attack dog. She cites her former boss, Wolf, frequently, and suggests she would follow in his popular, and not especially partisan, footsteps.
A frequent charge against Comstock has been that she shuns the media. Several show producers have complained that she is extremely difficult to book, and journalists pounced on a tape of her refusing to answer questions from a reporter after a debate.
She’s dismissive of these complaints, saying it’s more important for her to visit around the district and talk to people.
She recounts how much she learns while visiting in Loudoun County and hearing from constituents about their tax problems. “That’s something I probably never would have learned from some reporter down in Adams Morgan,” she says, referring to the trendy D.C. neighborhood.
The Tenth district encompasses wealthy Northern Virginia neighborhoods like Great Falls and McLean, home to D.C. diplomats and lobbyists, as well as more rural (and more Republican) areas in the Shenandoah Valley. Two counties in the district, Fairfax and Loudoun, had the top two median incomes in the country in 2011.
In recent years Democrats gained ground in the area. Obama narrowly won the district in 2008, while Romney beat him 50 to 49 percent in 2012. But the district is still rated “lean Republican” by the Cook Political report.