Virginia House of Delegates Speaker, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, waits for the door to be answered as he canvasses a neighborhood in Petersburg, Va., Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. Cox is facing Democratic challenger Shelia Bynum-Coleman in the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia legislative elections provide warmup for 2020

October 09, 2019 - 11:13 am
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox is a low-key retired school teacher who hasn't faced serious competition since the first President Bush was in office.

Now he's a top target of Democrats —both in and out of state— looking to capitalize on voter antipathy toward the current resident of the White House.

Attack ads accusing Cox of being a shill for special interests are all over the airwaves in his Richmond-area district. His opponent is raking in cash while trying to paint Cox as a crony of President Donald Trump.

Virginia's legislative elections in November have become the marquee warmup for the 2020 election cycle — an early gauge of Democratic enthusiasm and Republican resilience in a state once considered a presidential battleground.

The races are more than just bellwethers. Virginia has become a test run for the parties' massive, expensive campaigns to win the redistricting wars. The state legislature elected in November — like many legislatures elected next year across the country — will help decide who redraws congressional maps. The fight has drawn big money and attention to races often overlooked in the past.

Several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have made stops in Virginia, and more are expected before Election Day. GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein recently gave $500,000 to a Republican House candidate, one of the biggest single donations to a political candidate in state history.

For Cox, this year has meant trying to hold on to his own seat while raising millions for both his race and to help his caucus.

"I'm just trying to work very, very hard at it," he said.

Cox's opponent, Sheila Bynum-Coleman, recently had one of the biggest fundraising hauls of any candidate in the state and has several high-profile endorsements from advocacy groups spending unprecedented amounts on state legislative contests, including the Human Rights Campaign and Emily's List.

Four states have legislatives elections this year, but only Virginia's holds the promise of a seismic power shift. Democrats in the Old Dominion have a shot of winning control of the statehouse, which would give them control of both houses of the legislature and the governor's office for the first time in more than two decades.

That would be the culmination of the state's rapid political transformation. Demographic shifts and population growth in the Washington suburbs have weakened the political influence of the state's conservative, rural areas. Republicans have not won a statewide election in a decade but have managed to hold on to slim majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Voters unhappy with President Donald Trump, particularly in suburban areas, have helped accelerate the shift. Democrats surprised even themselves with how well they did in 2017, picking up 15 seats in the state House. The outcome was viewed as an early indicator of the national Democratic surge in the suburbs in the 2018 midterm elections.

Impeachment efforts by U.S. House Democrats have put a renewed focus on the Trump presidency just ahead of next month's elections. It's unclear what effect that will have in Virginia, but polls have consistently shown Trump with a low approval rating in the state.

These off-year legislative elections when there no statewide candidates running typically favor Republicans, but Democrats have other forces working in their favor.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the GOP-led Virginia House illegally packed black voters into certain districts when they drew legislative boundaries in 2011, helping Republicans who lived in nearby districts.

The new map helps Democrats and dramatically shifts the partisan dynamics in several districts that were once safely Republican. Two of the state's most powerful Republicans, Cox and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones, saw some of the biggest partisan and demographic swings.

Their new districts now include more inner suburban and urban precincts and fewer rural ones. African Americans now make up a third of Cox's district, up from 18 percent. Jones now represents a Hampton Roads district that is half African American, up from about a quarter.

"I do think (the new map) was targeting senior (Republican) members. Having said that, that's over. I'm very happy with my district and I'm going to work my district hard — always do," Cox said.

Much of the Democratic messaging mirrors what party candidates are running on nationally, including increasing gun-control laws and fighting climate change.

Bynum-Coleman recently launched TV attack ads calling Cox too cozy with the National Rifle Association.

"You'd be surprised how much gun violence is going to impact this race," Bynum-Coleman said.

Republicans are largely trying to avoid being tied to Trump while attacking Democrats as backing a far-left agenda that's out of step with most mainstream voters. Many Republicans, including Cox, are counting on their longstanding community ties to help diffuse anti-Trump energy.

Cox is hoping his practiced habit of door knocking — the kind of political scutwork many of his colleagues seek to avoid or minimize — will pay off. He's made door knocking part of his routine, even when not facing an opponent.

He's hoping to hit 5,000 new homes in his district before Election Day.

Making the rounds in a newly added part of his district during a recent weekday afternoon, Cox kept his pitch short and largely politics free: He's a retired school teacher who has worked to boost teacher pay, freeze college tuition and support veterans.

"If I can help you with anything, please give me a call," Cox said to one potential voter before moving off to the next house.

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