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Virginia Democrat Jennifer Wexton to retire from suburban district that zoomed left under Trump

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton announced Monday that she would not seek a fourth term representing Virginia’s 10th District due to worsening symptoms of a neurodegenerative disease.

Wexton, who revealed in April that she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, said in her new statement that her physicians have since “modified my diagnosis to Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy – a kind of ‘Parkinson’s on steroids.'” The congresswoman said that she’d serve out the rest of her term but added, “There is no ‘getting better’ with PSP. I’ll continue treatment options to manage my symptoms, but they don’t work as well.”

Wexton’s departure will set off a race to replace her in a constituency based in the southwestern D.C. suburbs and exurbs, territory that swung sharply to the left during the Trump era. Joe Biden carried the current version of the 10th 58-40 in 2020, though Democrat Terry McAuliffe prevailed here by a smaller 51-49 spread in the following year’s race for governor as he was losing to Republican Glenn Youngkin by that same margin statewide.

Wexton herself won an unexpectedly expensive contest in 2022 against Navy veteran Hung Cao 53-47, a margin half the size of her prior two victories. (Cao is now waging an uphill battle against Sen. Tim Kaine.) Her departure moves the 10th District up in our House Vulnerability Index from the 40th most at-risk Democratic-held seat to the 26th, though it would still likely take a GOP wave to put it in play.

Wexton spent more than a decade involved in Loudoun County politics as her populous and well-educated Northern Virginia suburb shifted from purple to blue. She sought office for the first time in 2011 when she ran to become the county’s top prosecutor, but she lost to Republican Commonwealth Attorney Jim Plowman 52-48. That close defeat came the same night that Republicans netted the two seats in the state Senate they needed to secure the 20-20 deadlock that, thanks to Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote, gave them control of the chamber.

Wexton, though, would go on to play a key role in helping Democrats regain the body for a short amount of time. Two Democratic senators, Ralph Northam and Mark Herring, won respective races for lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2013, and Democrats needed to win both January special elections to replace them in order to ensure that Northam could break ties in their favor. Democrats chose Wexton as their nominee to succeed Herring in the 33rd District, a seat that had backed Barack Obama 59-39 but was one where the party feared that low turnout could jeopardize their chances.

Wexton, though, had little trouble beating John Whitbeck, a local GOP official who had attracted unwelcome attention for telling an antisemitic joke at a rally, 53-38. But it wouldn’t be clear for another week that Wexton’s decisive victory had returned her party to power: Fellow Democrat Lynwood Lewis had won an extremely tight special to replace Northam two weeks earlier, but it took a recount to confirm he’d prevailed by 11 votes. However, the GOP would end up retaking the Senate just a few months later after Democrat Phil Puckett resigned from a dark red seat in June and was succeeded by a Republican, and they’d remain in power until the 2019 elections.

Wexton, however, was no longer in the legislature by that point. Prominent Democrats, including 4th District Rep. Donald McEachin, successfully recruited her to challenge Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in the 2018 cycle in what everyone expected would be a challenging race. Comstock, who was a prominent GOP opposition researcher during the Clinton era, had just won her second term 53-47 even as her district was dramatically swinging from a 51-49 win for Mitt Romney all the way to a 52-42 margin for Hillary Clinton, and her strong fundraising made her a tough adversary.

McEachin, who was serving as a DCCC vice chair, quoted Thomas Paine in his appeals for Wexton to take up the task, writing, “You and I are not sunshine patriots. Your country needs you.” First, though, the state senator had to prove to primary voters she was the best candidate against Comstock in what proved to be an expensive and busy primary. One contender, former State Department official Alison Friedman, used her personal wealth to far outspend all the other contenders. But Wexton, who had now-Gov. Northam’s endorsement, ended up prevailing 42-23 ahead of what promised to be one of the marquee races of the year.

This race instead became a pricey debacle for the GOP. Comstock struggled to distance herself from the toxic Trump administration at a time when well-educated suburban voters were abandoning Republicans in droves, and several polls showed the challenger well ahead. The conservative Congressional Leadership Fund bowed to reality, leaving Comstock for dead early and never reserved ad time to help her.

However, the NRCC confounded observers by throwing down a total of $5 million―its largest expenditure in the nation. Committee chair Steve Stivers defended his decision, arguing, “The last poll I looked at she’s winning. I’m not going to cut off somebody who is winning.”

Wexton triumphed 56-44 as the GOP was losing control of 40 other House seats, and with them control of the chamber. Stivers did not seek another term as head of the NRCC, and his replacement, Tom Emmer, quickly acknowledged he had been “inundated with complaints about the $5 million spent on TV ads to help Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.” (Stivers resigned in 2021 to lead Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce.)

Wexton had no trouble securing her second term two years later, but Republicans hoped that the anticipated red wave could give Cao an opening in 2022. The congresswoman ended up outraising her rival by a modest $3.8 million to $3.2 million, but this time, there was no serious outside spending from either party. Cao ran well ahead of Trump, but Wexton still prevailed 53-47.

This piece has been corrected to reflect that Lynwood Lewis won by 11 votes, not 9. 


September 2023