Democrats test anti-Trump messages in Virginia House race
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — In Tuesday’s Virginia primary, six Democrats are vying to challenge the incumbent Republican, Rep. Barbara Comstock, in a highly competitive race just outside the nation’s capital.
Despite being an eclectic mix, all the Democrats in the race point to President Donald Trump – his conduct in and out of office as much as his administration’s policies – as a key factor in their decisions to run for Congress.
Seeking to capitalize on the anti-Trump fervor that helped Democrats sweep key races in Virginia in 2017, the candidates competing in this district include an infectious disease scientist, a state senator, an Army veteran and Rhodes Scholar, and several former Obama administration officials.
While they have focused their campaigns on health care, gun control and the GOP tax law – along with Comstock’s record of largely voting in line with Trump – the Democrats, in interviews with ABC News, differentiated themselves with various ideas about on how to best challenge the president and hold him accountable.
It’s a question that remains on voters’ minds ahead of November: A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that 48 percent of voters – and more than 50 percent of voters in competitive congressional districts like Comstock’s – are more likely to support a congressional candidate promising to check Trump.
One of the Democrats, Dan Helmer, an Army veteran and Rhodes Scholar recruited to run for Congress by the bipartisan leadership organization New Politics, grabbed headlines for a television ad comparing Trump to Osama bin Laden.
In his ad, Helmer warned that the “greatest threat to our democracy” today “lives in the White House,” a comment the White House called “reprehensible” and “abhorrent.”
Helmer went on Fox News’s ‘Fox and Friends’ morning program to defend his comments and accused Trump of not living up to his oath of office.
“This is about a president who presents a grave danger to our democracy,” he told ABC News.
Helmer said he would support impeaching Trump without hesitation, accusing him of violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution and obstruction of justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey.
“Any one of these charges would be enough for impeachment and the president should have to answer for them in front of the Senate,” he said.
Paul Pelletier, another Democratic candidate in the race who spent 27 years as a prosecutor, has taken a similar position, telling his hometown paper in Massachusetts that “there’s enough evidence for the House to investigate.”
Alison Friedman, a former State Department official who worked to combat human trafficking, said in an interview that she’s “always been motivated by standing up to abuses of power,” before accusing Trump of doing the same.
“I never thought we’d have the epitome of the abuse of power at the White House,” she said, citing the legal debate around whether Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by receiving payments to his businesses from foreign countries and governments. (Congressional Democrats and several Democratic attorneys general have filed lawsuits over the allegations, which Trump has sought to dismiss.)
“Congress isn’t honoring their constitutional responsibility to oversight and accountability,” she said.
Friedman, who said she decided to run for office in part because Trump “scared my kids,” said potential Democrat-led impeachment proceedings in the House would be “one of the most serious moments in our nation’s history,” but wouldn’t commit to voting for impeachment without reviewing any impeachment articles.
“I’m prepared to make that vote but I’m not prepared to make a vote on something I haven’t read,” she said.
Julia Biggins, an infectious disease scientist running in the primary, also said she would wait to review the results of the Mueller investigation before deciding how to vote on potentially impeaching the president.
State Senator Jennifer Wexton, the apparent frontrunner and only state officeholder in the primary, was motivated to take on Trump after seeing increased turnout at her town halls after Trump took office.
“We came to realize that people were rising up and realizing that we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, and I came to realize that I can’t do that either,” she said in an interview.
Wexton, who attended the Women’s March in Washington after Trump’s inauguration and protested Trump’s first travel ban at Dulles International Airport, vowed to oppose Trump and congressional Republicans over policy disputes but also said she’d be willing to work across the aisle on shared priorities, including infrastructure.
“I will certainly be a check on this president if I see him or congressional Republicans planning to advance policies that are damaging to the people of the country,” she said. “But if there are areas that we can work together, I’d love to be able to work together.”
Wexton was also cautious when discussing Trump and possible impeachment.
A former prosecutor, she said she wants special counsel Robert Mueller to continue his work and that “we need to follow the facts and we can’t rush to judgment.”
Linsey Davis Stover, a former Capitol Hill chief of staff who worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama, said he more than 12 years of federal government experience would help her “hit the ground running” to challenge Trump “on day one.”
“We’ve got to not only be a strong check on this president but we also have to make sure that our government works to provide opportunities for all of our families,” she said.
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