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6 Democrats battle to take on Barbara Comstock, focusing on experience, not ideology

In this Wednesday, April 11, 2018 photo, Virginia State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudon talks with colleagues during the Senate special budget session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Wexton is one of the candidates in the crowded June Democratic primary that will produce a viable contender in the district representing northern Virginia suburbs and challenge Republican Barbara Comstock. (Photo: Steve Helber, AP)

When Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election in a pro-Trump Pennsylvania House district, Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed predictions of a Democratic tidal wave. Instead, he said, Democrats will hold primaries that will force their candidates to stake out far-left positions that won't fly in a general election.

In Virginia's 10th Congressional District, though, Democratic front runner Jennifer Wexton says she feels no pressure to portray herself as the most progressive candidate in a field of multiple well-funded candidates.

"I've represented a moderate, centrist district in the State Senate," said Wexton, one of six candidates seeking to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock. "For myself, I've got to be me."

The race is one of the most closely watched in the country, because Comstock is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. Comstock won the northern Virginia district in 2016 with 53 percent of the vote, but at the presidential level, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by 10 points. Last year, Democrat Ralph Northam carried the district by 13 points in Virginia's gubernatorial election.

As a result, lots of Democrats filed to take on Comstock. Six will be on the ballot, and four of the six have raised more than $850,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

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Thus far, though, the race has hardly been the sprint to the left Ryan predicted. Instead, the candidates have sought to distinguish themselves more on their biographies than on the issues, where the candidates have been broadly in agreement.

Wexton has received the endorsement of Gov. Northam and has emphasized her experience as a prosecutor and as the only elected official in the race.

"Most people I talk to do not believe the U.S. Congress should be an entry-level position," Wexton said.

The other candidates have all emphasized experience they believe sets them apart.

Former Obama Administration official Lindsey Davis Stover says she is the only candidate with federal legislative experience, citing her time as a chief of staff to Democratic former Congressman Chet Edwards in Texas. Dan Helmer highlights his military experience and his academic credentials as a Rhodes Scholar. Paul Pelletier cites his experience as a federal prosecutor handling cases involving health care and gun violence. Alison Friedman cites her experience at the State Department and in the private sector fighting human trafficking. Julia Biggins cites her credentials as a scientist.

While Wexton is generally acknowledged as a frontrunner, she has not been the most prolific fundraiser. That title belongs to Friedman, who has raised $1.4 million and has more than $800,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Wexton has raised $925,000 and has $630,000 on hand. Helmer and Stover have each raised between $850,000 and $900,000.

While the race has generally been civil. Helmer has been the most aggressive in attacking Wexton, citing her support for compromise gun legislation in 2016. The bills made it tougher for someone subject to a protective order to possess a gun, and also established voluntary background checks at gun shows. In exchange, Virginia was bound to accept concealed-carry permits issued by other states. Some gun-control activists felt the compromise gave too much to gun-rights advocates.

"People are tired of politicians who do the expedient thing instead of the right thing," Helmer said.

Wexton made no apologies for being willing to compromise and work with Republicans even if it means settling for less than you'd prefer.

She said primary voters "want someone who's going to stand up to divisive politics from the other side, but they still want someone who will work with the other side and is not going to vilify the other side."

Wexton is not the only candidate willing to emphasize her willingness to work with Republicans. Pelletier said that while opposition to President Donald Trump has energized Democrats, there is still a strong desire for politicians to work cooperatively.

"Voters want people who know how to solve problems in a nonpartisan way," he said.

One reason the primary hasn't become a dash to the ideological left may be the primacy of gun control in the race. The 10th district, home to some of the wealthiest counties and zip codes in the country, is a quintessential suburban district where a broad consensus has developed for measures like universal background checks.

The Democratic candidates have been relentless in attacking Comstock on guns. She has taken steps to distance herself from Trump but remains tied to the National Rifle Association, ranking in the top 10 among House members in money received from the NRA's political action committee.

"Gun control is not going to produce the same kind of negative attacks like `tax-and-spend liberal' or socialized medicine that you frequently see thrown at Democrats," said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

While Comstock is vulnerable, no one is counting her out, either. She has raised more than $2.5 million, and has more than $1.8 million cash on hand.

She did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

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