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Election 2018 Profiles: Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is All in on GOP’s Divide and Distract Strategy

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Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), in her previous two elections to Congress, didn’t make immigration and race-baiting a key component of her campaigns. But that has changed this year with her all-out embrace of the GOP’s divide and distract strategy in her race against Democratic state senator Jennifer Wexton for Virginia’s 10th district.

Comstock has been running an ad that highlights crimes by MS-13 and claims that Wexton would make the state less safe. While the gang is a real problem, Comstock, in line with the divide and distract strategy (blatantly explained here in an interview between Stephen Miller and Breitbart), attempts to tie the violence and criminality of the gang to the issue of immigration as a whole. Notably, one of the headlines Comstock uses in the ad is from a crime committed in New York, not Virginia.

After the Trump Administration’s policy of separating families at the border made national news and sparked nationwide protests, Comstock made a weak attempt to distance herself from the policy.  But she quickly turned back to her campaign messaging and accused asylum seekers of committing crimes and being MS-13 in disguise. Comstock went on to mimic the Trump Administration’s false talking points conflating immigration with crime.

The emptiness of Comstock’s words against family separation were further underscored by her actions. While she voted against the extremely anti-immigrant Goodlatte bill in June 2018, Comstock voted for a similar Ryan-Trump bill that codified the Trump Administration’s family separation policy.  

But Comstock’s anti-immigrant divide and distract strategy could backfire. Recent polling by Latino Decisions found that voters are tired of divisiveness and overwhelmingly support themes of unity and inclusion. And support for immigration has continued to increase since Comstock’s last election.

Most notably, it appears that Comstock has not learned how the divide and distract strategy dramatically failed in Virginia last year. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in 2017 employed a Trumpian strategy of demonizing immigrants and fear-mongering around MS-13, but he lost by a-larger-than-expected margin of nine percentage points. Gillespie emulated the anti-strategy of his gubernatorial primary opponent, Corey Stewart, who is now the GOP’s nominee for Senate in Virginia. In the days leading up to the general election last fall, Steve Bannon predicted Gillespie would win because he followed Stewart’s strategy.

Gillespie lost by a wider than expected margin — and there is evidence to suggest there was a backlash to the racist ads, which Comstock is now emulating. In a column titled, “Barbara Comstock mimics Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart,” the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted, “By running the ad, she has signaled that the only way she thinks she can get elected is by ginning up the far-right GOP base. It didn’t work for Gillespie, and it’s not likely to work any better for her.”

Many observers and polls highlighted how Gillespie’s anti-immigrant attacks turned voters off to Gillespie in favor of his opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam. That seemed particularly true in Northern Virginia, where Comstock’s district lies. In fact, Northam defeated Gillespie by a 12 point margin in the 10th Congressional District.

Since last fall, the GOP’s divide and distract strategy has frequently been a losing one in general elections across the nation. And while Comstock held her seat in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district by 10 percentage points.  

Comstock’s anti-immigrant divide and distract strategy may be in line with the Trump/GOP plan and it links her more closely to Corey Stewart, but it might be the very thing that keeps her from returning back to Congress for a third term next year.