Trump-supporting congresswoman can’t dodge her dismal climate record in tight Virginia race

Despite joining House climate caucus, GOP incumbent Barbara Comstock could lose her seat.

Jennifer Wexton, the Democratic nominee in Virginia's 10th congressional district, joins Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), left, at a Halloween Parade in Leesburg, Virginia, on  October 31, 2018. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Jennifer Wexton, the Democratic nominee in Virginia's 10th congressional district, joins Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), left, at a Halloween Parade in Leesburg, Virginia, on October 31, 2018. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Supporters of President Donald Trump routinely praise him for his ability to “tell it like it is.”

While offering an unsettling look inside the president’s mind, this lack of a filter has provided an important service to the rest of the nation: Trump’s racist and reactionary policy views have pulled the curtain back on how many Republicans actually view Americans.

Prior to Trump’s victory in 2016, Republicans typically tried to avoid engaging in the blatant racist, anti-Muslimanti-immigrant, and misogynistic conduct Trump has displayed since he began his campaign. But now, with Trump as head of the party, GOP lawmakers have been forced to own up to their own reactionary positions.

As a result, Republican candidates are scrambling to either defend or distance themselves from the party’s policy positions in their midterm election campaigns. Trump, by being himself, has succeeded in nationalizing the midterms, meaning hot-button issues like health care and immigration, not potholes and traffic, are highly contested debate topics. Even climate and environmental issues, frequently relegated to the back-burner, have made it onto the radar in 2018 due to the administration’s rejection of climate science and assault on environmental protection.


Virginia’s 10th congressional district is a clear example of that trend. A Trump loyalist, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), has tried to distance herself from the president on certain issues, including climate change. But in doing so, she is trying to portray herself as a different politician than her record would indicate.

“Donald Trump, Barbara Comstock, and their accomplices in Congress have aligned with corporate polluters to roll back environmental safeguards, endangering our health, our communities, and our climate,” Chelsea Watson, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Victory Corps, told ThinkProgress.

Victory Corps, established in 2008, embeds staff in state and federal campaigns to contact voters in support of candidates endorsed by the Sierra Club.

Watson views Jennifer Wexton, Comstock’s Democratic opponent, as more than just an improvement over Comstock on environmental and climate issues. “She is an exciting champion,” she said.


Comstock, whose voting record on climate issues is abysmal, joined the much-maligned House Climate Solutions Caucus in June 2017 because she recognized voters wanted her to be better on climate issues. She is one of the many vulnerable Republican candidates who have joined the caucus since Trump took office.

The caucus has been widely criticized for admitting Republicans who are in fact “climate peacocks” — a term used to describe politicians who want to put on a display of caring about climate change, without actually having to follow that up with action.

What’s interesting is that because of the makeup of the electorate in the 10th district, simply joining a caucus and saying something about an issue is not enough, according to Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

“They’re savvy voters and they expect action from their elected officials,” Town said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

The 10th district is unique, not only in Virginia but nationally, because it’s full of federal workers. “It’s even easier to nationalize an election in that district,” Town emphasized, “compared to metro Columbus and other suburban parts of the country.”


Voters in the 10th district “want elected officials who trust science, who recognize that not only is climate change happening but it’s a threat and a concern and we need to address it,” Town said.

The region doesn’t have any big polluting industrial facilities, although rapid housing development has put a strain on open space and water supplies, especially in previously rural communities that had relied on spring water or well water. The region also suffers from pollution problems, mainly due to vehicle emissions from traffic gridlock that rivals Southern California.

The western part of the 10th district has seen tremendous development over the past 30 years, rapid growth that contributed to Northern Virginia getting a third congressional district after the 1990 U.S. Census.

With that growth the district is transforming; it was a reliable GOP district that former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) represented for 34 years, but has become less of a Republican stronghold over the past 10 years.

Wexton, the Democratic nominee, has put together a strong environmental record during her four years in the Virginia state senate. The contrast between her environmental record and Comstock’s couldn’t be more striking.

Wexton has a 97 percent lifetime score from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (LCV) for her work in the general assembly. Comstock, who was first elected to Congress in 2014, earned a 9 percent rating from LCV for her voting record in 2017. She has a 5 percent lifetime score from the environmental group.

Prior to her election, Comstock served as a political aide to Wolf, who had an unremarkable three-decade career in Congress. His anti-environment stances weren’t as extreme as Comstock’s, but Wolf still posted only a 24 percent lifetime score on environmental issues, according to LCV.

“It’s definitely not the same district now as it was when Frank Wolf was in Congress,” Town said.

The district is now home to a large number of data centers, many of which are trying — struggling in some cases — to rely on renewable energy to meet the bulk of their electricity demand.

Residents also have expressed concern about the construction of new pipeline compressor stations and electric transmission lines. More recently, harmful pollution from a proposed manufacturing facility across the border in West Virginia has raised the environmental consciousness of many residents in the 10th district.

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

The district extends from Democratic-leaning eastern Fairfax County to Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties — an area that generally supports land conservation. In recent years, nonprofit groups and elected representatives in Loudoun and Fairfax counties have grown more concerned about climate issues and the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.

The district hasn’t always been represented by lawmakers with less-than-stellar or outright dismal records on environmental issues. Forty years ago, the district — which at the time covered parts of Northern Virginia closer to Washington — was represented by an environmentally conscious lawmaker who spent a large part of his career working on the economics of environmental protection.

Joseph Fisher, who represented the district for three terms in the 1970s, spent 15 years as president of Resources for the Future, an environmental and economics think tank, prior to his election to Congress.

As a lawmaker, Fisher was a strong advocate of funding for mass transit and protecting endangered species and clean air and water. Prior to winning his congressional seat, Fisher served as chairman of the Arlington County board, where he championed the development of the Washington Metro system.

“He was very proud of the Metro,” Michael Nardolilli, chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

As a congressman, Fisher voted to defeat amendments that would have cut off federal funding for mass transit. He also supported bills to restore funding for researching solar and wind energy. In addition, he helped create a fund to clean up oil spills. Fisher had an 84 percent lifetime score from LCV.

After losing to Wolf as part of a Republican sweep of Congress in 1980, Fisher established the economic policy department at the Wilderness Society. And with his departure from Congress, environmental issues at both the local and national levels in Virginia’s 10th district were ignored by the Republican representatives who followed.

“Frank Wolf was a pothole politician” who focused primarily on local issues and didn’t take many major stands on national issues, Nardolilli said.

Wexton, who could carry on Fisher’s legacy if elected, has advocated for laws to spur the development of renewable energy resources in Virginia, a state that lags behind its neighbors in terms of bringing renewables online.

She introduced legislation in the state senate to establish community-owned renewable energy programs in Virginia. Her bill, S.B. 1208, called for policies that  encourage the ownership by customers of community solar and of other forms of distributed electric generation.

According to clean energy advocates, the bill was defeated as a result of lobbying by Dominion Virginia Power to block authentic community solar farms. Instead, an alternative bill, S.B. 1393, requiring pilot programs to be administered by the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, passed the general assembly and was signed into law in 2017 by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

In 2017, Wexton received the Virginia Sierra Club’s “Environmental Freedom” award for her legislative work on community renewable energy.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is facing a tough reelection campaign against Democrat Jennifer Wexton. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is facing a tough reelection campaign against Democrat Jennifer Wexton. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last month, the LCV Victory Fund, the group’s political action committee, added Comstock to its House Dirty Dozen List. During her time in Congress, Comstock has taken more than $200,000 from polluting industries while voting to dismantle environmental protections, according to the group.

In 2017, Comstock introduced a bill that would overturn Virginia’s offshore drilling ban, putting her at odds with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who represent districts along the Atlantic coast.

That same year, Comstock voted for an amendment that would have reduced the EPA’s budget by about $1.9 billion, in line with Trump’s budget proposal, which was ultimately rejected by Congress.

Natalie Pien, an organizer with 350 Loudoun, pointed to Comstock’s “terrible environmental record” during her two terms in Congress. 350 Loudoun is active on climate change issues in the heart of Virginia’s 10th congressional district.

However, in an email to ThinkProgress, Pien noted that Wexton — as with many elected Democrats in Virginia — declined to take a position on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, although she did vow not to take campaign money from Dominion Energy, the lead developer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“All in all, I think Wexton will be a significant improvement over Comstock,” Pien said.

Watson agreed. “This year, with just a little over a decade left to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption, we don’t have time for more rollbacks, we need action,” she said. “We need climate champions like Jennifer Wexton in Congress who will stand up to Trump and corporate polluters and protect our clean air, clean water, and climate.”