McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Yes, it's an open seat in a swing district. But a big reason the race for Virginia's 10th Congressional District is drawing attention beyond its borders is a candidate with a lightning-rod past who has a special knack for getting under Democrats' skin and has been labeled a "professional Clinton hater."
Republican Barbara Comstock may not be well known to the average voter, but to political observers she carries status far beyond her short career in elected office as a three-term state delegate. She made her name in political circles in opposition research, digging up dirt on Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore as a Capitol Hill staffer. Her work included aggressive investigations of the Clintons under GOP House committee chairman Dan Burton, and later for the Republican National Committee.
Her opponent, John Foust, a two-term Democrat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, has made an issue of her past, calling her a partisan political warrior, the opposite of what is needed in Washington in an age when partisan sniping has led to constant gridlock.
"It's a part of the process that attracts some of the most extreme partisan members," Foust said of Comstock's work as an opposition researcher. He described her efforts as a chief investigator for Burton as "some of the most ugly things in American history, trying to demonize and personally destroy the president and his family and the people around him, and she led that effort."
In fundraising emails, former Clinton political aide Paul Begala called her a "professional Clinton hater" and said "she will no doubt practice the same politics of personal destruction she and her ilk practiced in the Clinton days" if she wins.
Comstock points to her record in the Virginia General Assembly, where she says she focused on bread-and-butter issues such as promoting telework, combatting human trafficking and pushing legislation to support northern Virginia's technology and business communities.
"They're stuck in the '90s," Comstock said in an interview about her critics.
Nationally, Republicans have suggested she is the kind of candidate who can help the GOP appeal to women. Gender issues have been a big part of the campaign. Comstock's campaign has attacked Foust for a remark that he doesn't think Comstock has ever held "a real job," portraying it as sexist.
Comstock pointed to her time as a working mother on Capitol Hill and later as a spokeswoman for the Justice Department as the kind of jobs that many voters in the 10th District hold.
"It shows his lack of understanding of the workforce in the area, and it's insulting and demeaning," she said. "It stems from his lack of ability to talk about anything he's done. He's spent his entire campaign attacking me personally."
Foust acknowledged "a poor choice of words," but says his comments were taken out of context, and that he was speaking in the context of job creation.
"I think you can have real jobs in the political world. She has had some high-level jobs that were clearly real jobs," he said in an interview.
Given Comstock's history as a Republican partisan, eyebrows were raised during her primary campaign when it came out that she had voted in the Democratic primary in 2008 — for Obama, no less.
Comstock says it was part of a strategy to boost Obama into the general election, where she felt he would be a weaker nominee than Hillary Clinton.
"I was wrong," she said.
Comstock said she sees nothing wrong with crossing party lines to cast a strategic vote in the other party's primary, which is allowed under Virginia law.
"People do it all the time," she said.
Bill Shendow, a recently retired political science professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, said Foust's campaign has committed ground-game resources to the district that have been absent in previous Democratic campaigns. Yet he said a Foust victory would still be an upset, given that the district has sent a Republican to the House for the last 30 years in Frank Wolf, who is retiring and in recent years has been increasingly seen as a maverick within in his party.
The seat, in fact, hasn't been open since it was created in 1952. The district stretches through northern Virginia from inside the Capital Beltway out to the Shenandoah Valley.
President Barack Obama carried the district by 3 percentage points in 2008, and Republican Mitt Romney won it by a point in 2012.