From the start of Saturday night's 10th Congressional District Republican Committee debate in Winchester, it was evident political jabs would be directed at several elected politicians. Two of the targets had seats on stage, 10th District Republican candidates and state Dels. Bob Marshall and Barbara Comstock, while the third holds office about 65 miles east in Washington D.C. – President Barack Obama.
Comstock and Marshall are viewed by many party leaders as the two front-runners in the six-Republican field seeking the GOP nod to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf. The two state lawmakers have nearly 30 years of legislative experience between them – the vast majority of which come from Marshall's tenure – and Comstock is often tagged as the natural successor of the congressman she once worked for as legislative counsel.
That considered, the four lesser-known contenders were determined to implant their names, their views and talking points in the consciousnesses of the 200-person crowd at Winchester's Millbrook High School.
“We need citizen legislators. We need term limits. We don't need career politicians,” said candidate Marc Savitt, a Frederick County resident and president of the National Association of Independent Housing Professionals. “This election needs to be about new ideas, not who can raise the most money.”
Howie Lind, a former U.S. Navy commander and chairman of the 10th Congressional District GOP Committee, said he's “the only candidate in this race who is a non-establishment conservative who can win in November.”
Lind quickly struck a harsh tone, assailing the president for what he calls Obama's “radical, leftist” agenda -- a sentiment he weaved into several responses and speeches throughout the debate.
“It's time to take a stand to face up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda,” he said. “He's destroying our country economically, militarily, culturally.”
Rounding out the field of candidates were Stephen Hollingshead, a former advisor in the Bush administration and former chief operating officer for Americans for Prosperity, and Rob Wasinger, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback.
Marshall, a hard-line conservative who represents portions of Prince William County and Manassas Park in the General Assembly, said 10th District conservatives need someone who “will not waver on the right to life, who will defend real marriage, who will work to end police state surveillance and our dependence on foreign oil and who has defended Virginians against Obama.”
Marshall took digs at Comstock for what he views as her weak stances on abortion, same-sex marriage and the current Medicaid expansion fight.
Moreover, Marshall knocked Comstock for supporting the nomination of a gay man for a state judgeship and said she favors the sale of birth control pill over-the-counter -- comments to which Comstock did not respond.
A third-term delegate, Comstock stayed largely above the fray during the discussion. She touted her pro-right to work legislation and bills she has supported that ensure competitive bidding for public infrastructure projects. These measures, she said, have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I've been tested by fire. When I've had elections, I've been attacked by the Clintons, Planned Parenthood, the unions, NARAL and a motley crew of big taxers and spenders. I fought back for our conservative principles and I won,” Comstock said.
Like her opponents on stage, Comstock bashed President Obama, whom she said “simply doesn't believe in American exceptionalism” and has been meek on foreign policy.
Key Republican platforms such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, shrinking government and the federal debt and establishing a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attacks were constant themes in the debate supported by every candidate. The U.S. Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were a few major sects of government the candidates said should be eliminated or significantly restructured.
None of the candidates wanted cuts in federal spending to come at the expense of the military budget.
“Government has two jobs, fundamentally – build our roads, defend our country and then it needs to get out of your lives," Wasinger said. "We need to go through government and cut as much as we can.”
On immigration reform, the candidates agreed securing U.S. borders needs to be step one.
Comstock said reform needs to be addressed not strictly for security reasons, but to celebrate immigrants who went through the process legally and are now proud, hard-working Americans.
“We have to continue to be open and welcoming and have a system that works so that [legal immigrants] can be rewarded for coming here and working within the system,” she said.
Hollingshead pointed out that children of “illegal immigrants” are citizens of the U.S., according to the Constitution.
“I don't think anybody is saying we're going to deport parents of citizens of the U.S,” he said – the only statement of the evening that drew a few boos.
Virginia's 10th Congressional District, which spans from McLean through portions of Fairfax, Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties, has been represented by Wolf since 1981. The GOP nominee will be selected April 26 through a firehouse primary and then square-off against Democrat John Foust in the November election.