Trump looms large in Virginia suburbs as Democrats look to flip key seat

CNN/ Newswire | 6/12/2018, 10:20 a.m.
Democratic candidates in the suburban enclaves of northern Virginia are hoping President Donald Trump's unpopularity among the federal government workers ...
Donald Trump

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) -- Democratic candidates in the suburban enclaves of northern Virginia are hoping President Donald Trump's unpopularity among the federal government workers who live here will deliver them a key House race.

Unlike other congressional districts, where the day-to-day machinations of Trump's administration feel a world away, the people here in Virginia's 10th District live with it. Though the district extends to the West Virginia border in northern Virginia, around 75% of voters in the district live in the suburban sprawl of Washington, DC, where one of the largest employers is the federal government.

That's why Dan Helmer, a combat veteran and Democratic candidate in the district, makes Trump part of his 10-second pitch as he approaches people on the platform for the 7:28 a.m. train from Manassas to Washington's Union Station.

"I think our country is worth fighting for and defending and I hope to do it again," he tells voters after voter. At times, he adds, that he never thought the fight would be "against our President."

Helmer is one of six Democrats running to face Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Voters here in Virginia will go to the polls on Tuesday to pick between Helmer; State Senator Jennifer Wexton, the perceived frontrunner in the race; former Obama administration officials Alison Kiehl Friedman and Lindsey Davis Stover; and two other Democrats.

There is a clear a reason for all the Democratic interest: Hillary Clinton won the district by 10 percentage points in 2016 and then-candidate Ralph Northam won the district in his governor's race by 13 percentage points a year later. Democratic operatives in nearby Washington see the region as a hotbed for Democratic activism in response to Trump and the example of the suburban district they believe is key to the party taking back the House.

Though the Democrats in the race have their policy differences -- Helmer, for example, thinks the others are too soft on gun control, while candidates like Wexton and Friedman believe they benefit from actual government experience -- the man in the White House a few miles away has voters on edge.

"This is a district full of public servants who understand what a fundamental risk this unfit president is to our district," Helmer said in between trains. "That there is a dark path ahead of us if we continue to have a president who is above the law, who is ripping up an international order we built."

Losing that centrish feeling

Helmer's candidacy appears to be a test of the theory that all press is good press.

Though he is serious and thoughtful in person, his ads have been splashy and attention-grabbing, at times eliciting rolled eyes from his opponents and even condemnation from the White House.

His first ad was a play on the move "Top Gun," where Tom Cruise's character -- with the help of his pilot friends -- sings "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" to Kelly McGillis' character. In Helmer's version, he is serenading -- admittedly poorly -- Comstock and belting, "You've lost that centrist feelin'."