Oppo’d Out: Ex-GOP Attack Dog Becomes Rising Star

Photo illustration by Christopher O'Driscoll
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Barbara Comstock earned her cred as one of the GOP’s top attack dogs. She was a leading crusader among Republicans interested in impeaching then-President Bill Clinton, served as the chairwoman of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s defense fund and ran opposition research for the Republican National Committee.

And her next step could be heading for Congress.

Currently a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, she was one of the first to jump into the race for retiring Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R-VA) House seat. Comstock’s connections to that seat are deep — in the early ’90s she worked as an aide to Wolf.

Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA)

And her candidacy is something Republicans are excited about — she’s earned a reputation on the right as one of the party’s up-and-comers. A Republican campaign official talking to TPM compared Comstock to Republican rising stars around the country like Mia Love in Florida or Lizbeth Benacquisto in Florida.

But while she’s been touted as a rising star, Comstock has roots in liberalism. She interned for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) before seeing “the light” and becoming a Republican.

“I remember in Kindergarten we had Impeach Nixon signs that we made.” said Republican pollster and strategist Kellyanne Conway, a longtime friend of Comstock’s.

After converting to conservatism, Comstock — who didn’t respond to TPM’s requests for an interview — moved from Wolf’s office to working for the House Oversight committee, where she appears to have whetted her appetite for investigations. She was closely involved in the GOP probes of the “Travelgate” and “Filegate” scandals during the Clinton Administration, assembling a veteran team of Republicans to investigate. That team, wrote The Atlantic’s Joshua Green, “understood how to use opposition research in the service of a larger goal: not simply to embarrass Gore with hard-to-explain votes or awkward statements but to craft over the course of the campaign a negative ‘storyline’ about him that would eventually take hold in the public mind.”

“A campaign is a lot like a trial,” Comstock told The Atlantic in 2004. “You want people aggressively arguing their case.”

But Comstock’s interest in those scandals may have gone too far. Journalist David Brock described Comstock in his book, Blinded by the Right, as having a strange fixation on Hillary Clinton while she was helping to investigate the various Clinton Gates-scandals. Brock wrote that Comstock one day brought over a “dreadfully dull” hearing of the Whitewater investigation that she watched with close fixation. As it became increasingly clear that most of Comstock’s leads wouldn’t result in a smoking gun, Brock wrote, Comstock admitted that the Clinton scandals were consuming her to “to the unfortunate point that she was ignoring the needs of her family.”

Del. Barbara Comstock, R-Fairfax, center

Brock noted that Comstock said she was particularly interested in Hillary Clinton’s parts in the scandals “because Hillary reminds me of me. I am Hillary.”

During the 2000 election, she became the head of opposition research at the Republican National Committee where friends and former colleagues remember her pulling long hours to dig up new dirt.

“My offices used to be on the top floor of the RNC and I’d come down to the main floor to go home and I would sometimes at 9 or 9:30 at night go into her office because I would see that the lights were on in there,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson told TPM. Nicholson ran the RNC when Comstock was director of opposition research there. “She was there, her whole team was there with her. They weren’t there because she told them to stay there, they were there because their leader was there.”

Now, Comstock hopes to make the leap from operative to statehouse to Congress. Since she jumped into the race, she’s gotten a few lucky breaks. Although she has a long history of working with establishment Republicans (she’s worked on both George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign and Mitt Romney’s) she’s managed to get endorsements from a range of Republicans including Romney but also the president of the tea party aligned Americans for Prosperity.

Del. Richard H. Black, R-Loudoun

Even better news for Comstock, state Sen. Dick Black (R-VA) quickly dropped out of the race after he had his own Todd Akin moment: old statements about his opposition to criminalizing spousal rape resurfaced. Roll Call, however, reported Tuesday that another conservative firebrand, Virginia Del. Bob Marshall is “seriously” considering running for Wolf’s seat. Marshall’s claims to fame include comparing the state attorney general’s refusal to defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban to the Dred Scott decision.

“I don’t want to call her the perfect candidate,” Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd told TPM. “But for this race at this time given the state of the Virginia Republican party I think she’s as perfect a candidate as Republicans could come up with.”

Comstock, Kidd said, has a bright future if she wins the seat. “I think if Comstock wins this race then I think then we could very easily see her in the next four to six to eight years moving up in the ranks of the Republican party leadership in the House,” Kidd added.

Some of Comstock’s signature issues seem to be about women’s rights and abortion. During her time in the state legislature Comstock supported legislation requiring an ultrasound prior to getting an abortion, a few bills blocking state funding for abortion and one defining life beginning at conception. (Though she’s also introduced a bill aimed at reducing domestic violence and pushing the state to expand full-day Kindergarten.)

“She’s a great pushback on the whole War on Women meme. I mean just by [her] being there,” longtime friend Conway said.

Correction: This story misidentified Dick Black as a state representative. He is a state senator. This story also said that Comstock had been endorsed by Americans for Prosperity but she was actually endorsed by the president of that organization, not the group. We regret the errors.

Photo illustration by Christopher O’Driscoll.

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