Congressional races enter final stages

Bob Goodlatte

One of the area’s two congressional districts has turned into a political battleground in the closing weeks of the 2016 election while the other is a quieter affair.

Outside money from both major political parties is pouring into the 10th District where incumbent Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, 57, is being challenged by Democrat LuAnn Bennett, 63, also of McLean.

In the 6th District, U.S. Rep Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, 64, is seeking his 13th term against Democrat Kai Degner, 36, of Harrisonburg.

Degner, a realtor and marketing manager, was first elected to the Harrisonburg City Council in 2008 and is completing his second term. He holds a master’s in business administration from James Madison University and a bachelor’s degree, also from JMU. Degner was born in Germany and moved to the United States with his parents when he was 6 years old.

Degner has tried to turn Goodlatte’s long tenure in Congress against him by reminding voters that the incumbent promised to serve no more than six terms when he first ran in 1992.

LuAnn Bennett

Now, 24 years later, Goodlatte is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a focal point for laws determining the severity of sentences for federal crimes, immigration reform and other matters affecting the federal legal system.

Goodlatte was born in Massachusetts and graduated from the Washington and Lee University School of Law in 1977, followed by a two-year stint as an aide to former Republican U.S. Rep. M. Caldwell Butler in the 6th District. Goodlatte was a private practice attorney from 1980 until 1992 when he ran for Congress.

Goodlatte has been one of the most important opponents in Congress of comprehensive immigration reform legislation and a pathway to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants. Goodlatte argues instead for stricter border enforcement and consideration of legislation one piece at a time instead of a more sweeping bill favored by advocates for undocumented immigrants.

Degner says he supports comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway for undocumented immigrants to obtain citizenship or legal residency, depending on their individual circumstances.

A proposed natural gas pipeline has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in the campaign. Degner has accused Goodlatte of reaping financial gains from the controversial Mountain Valley pipeline, which would run from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County in Virginia. The pipeline passes south of the 6th District, but the route is close enough to have stirred fierce opposition around Goodlatte’s hometown of Roanoke.

Barbara Comstock

Goodlatte has called Degner’s accusations a manufactured controversy. He said in a recent debate that the authority to approve the pipeline rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state officials. Goodlatte said he has no role as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, except to ensure pertinent federal laws are being followed.

“He says that I have purchased huge quantities of stock in that company in order to benefit from the pipeline passing through that area,” Goodlatte said of Degner. “I have not. The stock is owned by my wife. His attempt to smear me and my wife is an insult, and it is absolutely false.”

Degner replied that whether Goodlatte or his wife owned stock in the company was “a difference without distinction” as far as a conflict of interest.

He added that Goodlatte’s protestation “really misses the larger point” about the need for the nation to move away from fossil fuels and do more to encourage the development of “green energy” sources.

The 6th District includes Roanoke, Lynchburg and most of the Shenandoah Valley north to Warren and Shenandoah counties. All or parts of Page, Rockingham, Highland, Augusta, Bath, Bedford, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Roanoke and Amhearst counties are also included.

Kai Degner

The district has voted consistently and heavily Republican in past presidential and congressional elections. Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, saw little prospect of a surprise outcome in the Goodlatte-Degner campaign.

“It’s not a competitive race,” Kondik said.

The same cannot be said for the Comstock-Bennett campaign in the 10th District, which in the past several weeks has grown into a race commanding national attention from both parties.

Democrats regard the 10th as a make or break election for their slim hopes of regaining a majority in the House of Representatives.

The district extends from the Potomac River in the East to the state line with West Virginia. In between, it covers all or parts of Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties. The population, at least in the part of the district closest to Washington, D.C., is among the wealthiest and best educated in the country. It is representative of a slice of the overall electorate that has been slipping away from the Republican Party in recent presidential elections and some congressional races.

The sliding poll numbers of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump loom over Comstock’s re-election bid.

Bennett tried to tie Comstock to Trump for months while the incumbent steadfastly refused to say, until recently, whether she would vote for him. The release of audio tapes of Trump making lewd comments about women led Comstock to denounce him and declare she would not vote for him, but Bennett has continued to bore in on the incumbent.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball recently moved the race from “leans Republican” to “toss up,” a move also taken by other organizations in the business of following the trajectory congressional campaigns.

“Trump is sort of uniquely positioned to hurt Comstock in Virginia 10th,” Kondik said, adding, “if she were to end up losing, it would almost entirely be because of Trump.”

Comstock, 57, was elected to Congress in 2014, replacing former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who had represented the district since the 1980s. She was first elected to public office in 2009 as a member of the House of Delegates, a position she held until 2014.

Comstock was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Georgetown University Law School. Before winning elected office, she held jobs at numerous government posts, including as an aide to Wolf, chief counsel for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and as spokeswoman for the Justice Department.

She was also an intern for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., while an undergraduate at American University. She told the New York Times several years ago that she came to realize she was a Republican after attending Senate hearings with Kennedy and finding herself more in agreement with his political opponents.

Comstock spent her early career in government conducting opposition research on behalf of Wolf and former U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., against the Clintons. But she has spent much of her tenure in the House concentrating on less lower voltage issues such as mass transit, infrastructure and technological innovation.

Bennett, 63, runs a real estate development business headquartered in Washington, D.C. This is her first try for public office.

Bennett was born in Illinois and graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in education. She and her husband moved to Fairfax County in 1981. They started a real estate business that Bennett took sole control of after her husband’s death from leukemia in 1994. Her work in government has included stints on state government commissions dealing with climate change and health care.

The opioid epidemic has drawn the attention of both candidates. Comstock has cited her work in helping win approval for more money for drug enforcement and treatment initiatives. She recently joined other officials in successfully lobbying a federal agency to designate Frederick County a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which opens the way for additional anti-opiate funding.

Bennett has criticized Congress for failing to approve $1.1 billion requested by the Obama administration to bolster treatment and prevention programs and access to medication for addicts.

Bennett said Congress approved only $37 million.

“This is the kind of legislating we need to stop doing,” Bennett said during a recent debate. “We need to, when we pass bills, when these crises are happening, we need to address them quickly, and we need to get them the adequate funding they really need to solve the problem.”

Comstock replied that she intended to “fight for more money” and expected to get it when Congress reconvenes for its lame duck session after the election.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.