Huffpost: Why One Congressional Primary Has Democrats Excited For 2018

The Democratic Party has a good problem going into the 2018 midterms: Things are starting to feel a little crowded.

Consider the jam-packed Democratic primary to unseat Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a longtime Democratic target who party officials believe can finally be toppled thanks to President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the district. At last count, no fewer than eight Democratic candidates have declared for that race.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg), initially considered the favorite to win the nomination, is facing an unexpectedly stiff challenge. After the first two fundraising quarters of 2018, Wexton has been heavily outraised by three opponents: former State Department official and anti-human trafficking advocate Alison Kiehl Friedman; Army veteran and business strategist Dan Helmer; and Obama administration alumnus and communications consultant Lindsey Davis Stover.

Friedman, already leading the pack in fundraising thanks to an early endorsement from the feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, is set to announce several high-profile endorsements in the days and weeks to come ― including one this week from Khizr Khan, an outspoken critic of Trump whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed while deployed in Iraq in 2004. In an endorsement letter provided to HuffPost, Khan, writing as “a proud Virginian patriot,” praises Friedman’s work “serving people who are often ignored or left out.” Friedman, whose mother, Kristina Kiehl, co-founded the reproductive rights group Voters for Choice with Steinem, has benefited from deep ties to a nationwide network of progressive activists.

Friedman isn’t the only rookie candidate lining up high-profile endorsements. Davis Stover is set to appear alongside reproductive rights activist and former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, and recently held an event with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who worked with Davis Stover at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration.

“We bring a lot of depth of federal experience to this race,” Davis Stover told HuffPost. “I’ve lived many of the challenges people are facing right now.”

Helmer, meanwhile, has received a number of endorsements from the national security establishment ― which is heavily represented in Comstock’s district, thanks to its proximity to Washington ― including former Obama administration official Michele Flournoy and the progressive veterans organization VoteVets.

That many of the most competitive candidates weren’t even on the district’s political radar a year ago is striking evidence of how the surge in political engagement on the left, prompted by Trump’s contentious administration, is reshuffling just who makes up the party “establishment.” This, in turn, is forcing Democratic Party officials to take a more passive approach to elections, as grassroots activists and members of the party’s myriad factions jockey for position.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, had recruited Wexton and publicly heralded her entrance into the race earlier this year, but was forced to sit back as more candidates threw their hats in the ring. Now, instead of focusing its efforts solely on Wexton, the DCCC is providing assistance to a number of candidates and is coordinating anti-Comstock messaging where it can.

Wexton still sports the deepest endorsement bench, including Reps. Gerry Connolly and Donald McEachin, both Virginia Democrats, as well as a slew of state legislators, county supervisors, school board officials and other local political operators.

In an interview, Wexton said her ties to the district set her apart from the crowded field and could tip the balance in the party’s favor next November, calling herself “a proven vote-getter here in the district.”

She attributed her underwhelming fundraising numbers to her donor base being centered in Virginia ― drawing an implicit contrast with her opponents who have enjoyed an influx of outside money.  

“We’ve had a lot going on in Virginia,” Wexton said. “I have no doubt that my number will continue to be strong. I don’t think that the one with the most money always wins.”

Multiple Democratic Party officials, all requesting anonymity to speak candidly, say they still favor Wexton, citing her history in the district and her connections to Loudon County, which proved to be a major swing county in recent elections. However, these same officials remain confident that Wexton’s major primary challengers would be well-positioned to unseat Comstock next November.