Five months after losing one of the nation’s most high profile congressional races, Democrat LuAnn Bennett is best remembered by many of her would-be constituents for a seemingly endless barrage of television ads that accused her, among other things, of living outside the district and neglecting promises to develop a parking lot into a Washington, D.C. preschool.
Bennett spent much of her campaign vociferously denying those claims, and shooting back with her own attacks against her opponent for Virginia’s 10th Congressional seat, incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, tying her to then-Republican party nominee Donald Trump, the candidate who would suffer a lopsided loss in the district.
Those claims against Comstock, and Bennett’s own candidacy, were not enough to turn the district designed to be a safe Republican seat blue for the first time since 1980. Instead of a spot in Congress, Bennett has returned to her Washington-based real estate business she started with her late husband. She doesn’t plan to run for this seat or any other in the immediate future.
Though she may have faded from the political headlines in northern Virginian, Bennett has stayed active supporting Democrats in the state her opponents said she didn’t live in. Among local Democrats she is remembered as one of the best candidates the party has fielded in the district – and as the one who came closest to taking it back from Republicans in 30 years.
In Virginia, with elections returning every fall, Bennett sees herself as a proud Democratic party member strengthened by a brutal campaign, as well as an example of a growing trend in progressive energy. She believes this rising liberal activism will help re-take Virginia’s 10th next year, and lead a wave of a reinvigorated Democratic party in the Commonwealth and across the nation.
“I’d like to take credit for some of that, but it’s not really about me,” Bennett said recently. “It’s been happening around Loudoun County, and it’s a very positive and encouraging sign.”
It Started in 2015
For Bennett it started in Loudoun County, the heart of the 10th district, back in 2015 with wins by fellow Democrats. Jennifer Boysko picked up a seat covering parts of Sterling and Herndon in the House of Delegates, and Koran Saines of Sterling and Kristen Umstattd of Leesburg were elected to the Board of Supervisors, with Saines defeating arch-conservative Eugene Delgaudio. Democrat Phyllis Randall would emerge from a three-person field to take the board’s chairmanship, giving the party three seats on a nine-person body that one election cycle before was represented solely by Republicans.
In 2016, though Trump would take the White House and Republicans would continue control Congress, state Democrats said they made significant strides, particularly in northern Virginia, which overwhelmingly voted for 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. More importantly, Trump’s election has spurred sidelined liberals into action, manifested by protests, rallies and activist groups organizing to challenge their elected officials, particularly the Republicans holding much of the nation’s political power.
That continues with Virginia’s 2017 elections, the most-high profile off-year elections in America, and the headlining governor’s race in particular. The Commonwealth’s unusual statewide election cycle held one year after presidential elections is typically seen as a referendum on the president and his party. With Trump and Congress facing unmatched lows in approval ratings, Democrats see Virginia’s local elections as the chance to begin turning the tide that eventually sweeps Republicans out of power by the 2020 general elections.
“For the Commonwealth of Virginia, the statewide elections are critically important,” Bennett said. “We have an opportunity that we haven’t seen in my time here in Virginia.”
Last week she endorsed Tom Perriello, the upstart progressive who in three months of campaigning has risen to the top of the latest gubernatorial polls. She, along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is one of the few big-name party members to support the former one-term congressman from the Charlottesville area, and for Democrats becoming perhaps his best-known supporter in Northern Virginia.
“It means the world to me, not just because LuAnn has been such an amazing leader, not just in the Democratic party but for causes across Northern Virginia,” said Perriello April 16 in Leesburg at a joint meeting with Bennett and a dozen local Democrats. “For her to be on board with us will help us be even stronger on issues including environmental protection to protecting a woman’s right to choose, making sure that we continue to see the middle class get stronger.”
Her endorsement also carries weight because it comes at the expense of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Perriello’s sole opponent for the Democratic nomination and the traditional establishment candidate who has received nearly all the party’s endorsements. Incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a personal and political friend of Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton, has supported Northam as his replacement, as the Virginia constitution precludes its governors from seeking re-election.
National media has portrayed the contest between Northam and Perriello as a proxy battle for the future of the party and the newest stretch of the high-profile campaign between establishment favorite Clinton and the progressive-minded Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, a notion members of both local campaigns have repeatedly dismissed.
While Comstock distanced herself from Trump, Bennett wholeheartedly supported Clinton in 2016. Bennet is quick to say her endorsement is not an indictment of Clinton or Northam- who along with McAuliffe campaigned alongside her in 2016- but a testament to Perriello’s vision to lead the party going forward. She also said her endorsement isn’t just for the future, but for a candidate she says will win the general election in November.
“I really believe Tom has the energy, the message and the vision for the Democratic party going forward,” Bennet said. “I believe he’s casting a wider net. I believe he’s speaking to the concerns of all Virginians, not just the typical Democratic constituencies and I think that that is so important for our party.”
“He not only took the votes, but he owned the votes afterwards,” Bennett added, referencing Perriello’s vote for the Affordable Care Act and for cap and trade measures, both of which helped him lose his seat after one term in the traditionally conservative fifth district. Perriello has used his defeat as indicators of strength during his campaign for governor, and as a sign he’s willing to fight for progressive values, even if that means losing the ability to do so as an elected official.
“That’s really special when you have someone with that much conviction about what he is and what he’s willing to do,” Bennett said. “I think that’s extraordinary, and I think those are the people we want in public service.”
There’s a natural fit there by someone who prided herself on standing on her values. In a swing district, Bennett stood by many of the priorities Perriello has stressed in 2017, including government-lead efforts to protect the environment, investing in green energy jobs as well pro-choice stances for women even when she herself said her own convictions would make it very difficult for her to personally seek an abortion. While she says she won’t back down from liberal values, and doesn’t regret doing so in 2016, she admits it might have hurt her against Comstock, who she said has mastered the art of meaningless political speech.
Democrats Eager to Battle Comstock
While Bennett says she is singularly focused on keeping Democrats in the governor’s mansion in 2017, it’s impossible to overlook the seat she didn’t win, and the prospect of someone else knocking off a Republican in the 10th come 2018. The national Democrats continue to stress to members of a party that historically lags behind Republican in poll turn out the importance of voting in each and every election. Bennett says this renewed focus will help future Democrats move past the highwater mark she set last year in the 10th.
“This is a seat that will be a Democratic seat,” Bennett said. “I’m sorry we couldn’t do it in 2016. It was our hope and belief that we could. Our polling suggested that throughout the fall we were right there and had the ability to do it. I believe the trend is moving in that direction.”
It’s difficult for any challenger to knock off an incumbent, particularly a candidate with a significant fundraising edge and millions of dollars in support from national party organizations. Bennett couldn’t garner the same name recognition as her more established opponent, and the barrage of negative campaign adds didn’t help Bennett either. Ultimately, Comstock was also able to differentiate herself from Trump, dramatically outperforming him in the district.
Bennett believes her successors will also have a better playing field in the district, which spans from eastern Fairfax County to the West Virginia border, and includes an influx of young and minority voters, both groups which tend to vote for Democrats.
The Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures how closely a Congressional district affiliates with either the Democratic or Republican party, shows the District has slowly drifted away from the GOP. Ahead of the 2017 elections, it gives a slight edge to the Democrats.
Her would-be successors have reached out to her, and she has spoken with declared candidates like Dan Helmer and Lindsey Davis Stover, as well as potential candidates like state Sen. Jennifer Wexton. Already four candidates have declared their intentions 18 months out from the general election, and up to a dozen more are rumored to be in the running. In comparison, Bennett was among just a handful of Democrats to run, beginning her campaign less than a year before election day.
“I would love to believe that our campaign played a role in that, that Barbara Comstock is vulnerable and that she can be beat,” Bennett said. “We cut her previously lead substantially. We can win this seat. I believe we will in 2018.”
While Comstock continues to ride off the momentum of a comfortable re-election win less than six months ago and rack in eye-popping fundraising numbers, her detractors believe she is more vulnerable than ever. Activist groups like Indivisible and Dump Comstock have protested outside her office, bombarded her staff with phone calls and emails and continued to press her about her stances on repealing the Affordable Care Act and failure to communicate with constituents at an in-person town hall. They believe this energy and pent up frustration will carry over to the masses when they come to the ballot box in 2018.
“She plays lips service, and that’s about it. She’s not a profile in courage,” Bennett said. “We’ve seen that with not showing up to town halls and trying to control the Q and A’s. People are tired of that. They’re just tired of that.”
Bennett said she won’t run in 2018, largely because of the deep bench of candidates and the growing statewide and national activism she believes she helped fuel. Back in Loudoun last week, she was asked if Democrats could win in a county that still has Republican control in its Board of Supervisors and mostly conservative representation in the General Assembly.
“They’re going to from now on,” she said.