On the Campaign Trail with Jennifer Wexton in Virginia’s 10th:

The race between U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) and State Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-33) is viewed as one of the most heated contests in November’s mid-term Congressional elections. Recently, Loudoun Nowreporter Kara C. Rodriguez was given the opportunity by both campaigns to shadow each candidate for a day, to give readers an eye into what a day in the life of a Congressional candidate looks like. Election Day is Nov. 6.

“I’m Jennifer Wexton and I’m going to repeal and replace Barbara Comstock!” The line gets a roar every time and this Saturday morning—the first non-rainy one in recent memory—it energizes the large group of supporters at her Sterling campaign headquarters who have turned out to knock doors in support of their chosen candidate. It’s the largest turnout they’ve ever had on a weekend morning, her campaign staff members report. They hope the faithful followers who have come out is a prelude to a big November win.

As the first-time Congressional candidate begins what will undoubtedly be another long day in a seemingly never-ending campaign season, she finds herself in at least two dozen pictures or selfies before she even heads out for her first campaign stop. How many pictures is she in on a given day?

“Hundreds,” Abby Carter, her legislative aide, guesses. And by late afternoon it seems an accurate estimation.

“Let’s go knock some doors,” she shouts to cheers and applause. And while her volunteers stock up on their campaign lit to hand out to area residents, Wexton is headed west to the far end of the 10thCongressional District. Once bright-red Clarke County has seen some shades of light blue as transplants relocate west, so a Democratic candidate circling through the Clarke County Farmers Market in downtown Berryville is not all that unusual anymore.

As she heads over the mountain, as locals say, she has a few moments between sips of lemonade to reflect on the campaign thus far. It’s been more of a marathon than a sprint since she announced her intent to seek the Democratic nomination for the 10thCongressional seat against incumbent Comstock in April 2017. For the first 14 months after her announcement, Wexton had to contend with members of her own party for the chance to face Comstock, who has held the seat since 2014 following the retirement of former Republican congressman Frank Wolf, who represented the district for more than 30 years. A win by Wexton would mean the seat would be held by a Democrat for the first time since 1980 when Wolf, on his second try, beat out Democratic incumbent Joseph Fisher.

It’s selfie time at Wexton’s Sterling campaign headquarters before setting out to knock doors and make campaign stops. Among her supporters this day are, clockwise from Wexton, Del. John Bell (D-87), 87th District candidate Suhas Subramanyam, Leesburg District Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D), Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-86), and Sterling District Supervisor Koran Saines.
[Kara C. Rodriguez/Loudoun Now]
            Following her win in June’s Democratic primary, Wexton, her staff and volunteers immediately got to work to focus on November. She’s run both her primary campaign and her Congressional campaign while juggling her own duties in the state Senate, not to mention life at home with her husband Andrew, two teenage sons and dogs.

“The primary was a long slog,” she says upon reflection. In addition to working on her own campaign, she spent much of 2017 working to elect the ticket of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, she says.

Andrew Wexton has been picking up the slack at home for the better part of the last year and a half, and her sons have adjusted as well. It’s not the first campaign rodeo for the family, as Wexton unsuccessfully ran for the Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney seat in 2011, but then won her state Senate seat in a special election two years later. She was re-elected in 2015.

Her sons were recently featured in a Wexton campaign ad, which showcased Wexton’s career benchmarks and political accomplishments through scenes of her driving a minivan and her sons aging along the way. In the final scene, the two boys are shown in present day, glued to their cell phones with Wexton at the wheel. Her older son, Matthew, was a harder sell on being featured in mom’s campaign ad. But, “when I explained all he had to do was get in the car and look at his phone … that’s not a stretch for him,” she said.

The boys have taken the campaign in stride, even a recent instance where her younger son told her some boys at his school threatened to beat him up “because [your] mom is going to raise our taxes,” Wexton recalled. “It was more upsetting for me than it was for him,” she said, with her son shrugging off the campaign rhetoric.

On the drive along Rt. 7, she passes many signs both for her and her opponent, including a few “Dump Comstock” signs. It’s a great feeling when she sees signs supporting her candidacy—“except when they’re placed in the right of way,” she says with a laugh—but the “Dump Comstock” signs don’t engender the same feeling.

“I’d rather someone be for me than against someone else,” she says.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33) poses in front of a LOVE sign at the NOVA Pride Festival on Sept. 29.
[Kara C. Rodriguez/Loudoun Now]
            At the farmers market, her first stop is at the tent of Geneva Jackson, a Berryville legend known for her delicious baked goods, especially her ham biscuits. Wexton makes sure to pick up the ham biscuits before they sell out and shared them with her campaign team in between stops. She barely has enough time to make the rounds in Berryville, stopped by supporters every few feet, before it’s on to northern Loudoun for Lovettsville’s Oktoberfest celebration.

Her encounters with voters are generally cordial, and rarely hostile, even from those who support Comstock. Her approach in her discourse is always the same—“being myself, open, thoughtful, and kind, finding out what’s on their mind, the issues that matter the most to them and what makes [them] feel the way [they] do,” she says.

Although on this particular day she takes time during campaign stops to answer this reporter’s questions, car rides more often than not are spent doing fundraising calls rather than taking a mental break. She jokes that when she first began her campaign she was reluctant to cede control and let staffers or volunteers drive her around, “but now I’m like, this is kind of nice.”

Throughout the day, she is flanked by Carter and Aaron Fritschner, her communications director. During and between each campaign stop, the two take turns taking pictures for constituents, keeping time, as well as checking and updating campaign social media accounts.

“It’s very annoying having a lawyer as a candidate because they want to approve all social media posts,” Wexton says, as she stops to do exactly that while walking up to Oktoberfest.

“Hey, I like your sticker,” Wexton exclaims as a passerby sports a Wexton for Congress sticker.

“Yeah, me too,” the man replies, before realizing who is giving him the compliment. A picture soon follows.

In Lovettsville, Wexton is awed by the “Goats for Wexton” who escort her along her walk-through of the booths and meet-and-greets with supporters. The goats, perhaps, draw even more spectators. She stops often throughout the day to pet many dogs and also happens upon local celebrity Otto the wiener dog, who she wishes well in his race that day. A quick break for a German bratwurst and Oktoberfest bier is the only time Wexton stands idle all day, as she even fields questions and takes pictures between bites.

It’s clear that many of those who approach Wexton on this warm day are emboldened by the events of the past week, when Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified before Congress along with his accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in an instance that stirred up emotions in the #MeToo movement.

One of Wexton’s youngest supporters was so excited to meet the Congressional hopeful he could barely speak. He and his mom, left, are among the many volunteers that write postcards for Wexton’s campaign.
[Kara C. Rodriguez/Loudoun Now]
            One of her supporters in Lovettsville, a sexual assault survivor, said she just isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to participate in a previously planned engagement the weekend following Election Day “if we don’t take back Congress,” she says, beginning to cry.

“Well, now we really have to win,” Wexton says, bringing her in for an embrace.

The last stop of the afternoon before two private fundraisers later in the day is at the NOVA Pride Festival in Bull Run Park in Centreville. There, Wexton runs into Del. Danica Roem, who made history as the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve in state legislature. Wexton was one of her legislative role models, she says, before she ever considered running for office herself.

“I like Democratic women of Northern Virginia who get things done,” she says, while vowing to do anything she can to ensure a Wexton win.

As she circles the tents at the pride festival the Team Wexton presence is strong. Gathering a group to pose in front of the pride “LOVE” sign, Wexton helps a young supporter navigate her blow-up unicorn down a hill.

“This is Jennifer,” a supporter says, shaking her head—never too big for the moment, always down to earth. Her supporters hope those qualities carry her across the finish line Nov. 6.

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

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