On paper, Kirk Cox didn’t look like he had a chance.
A court order meant to undo racial gerrymandering shifted the partisan balance in the powerful Republican House speaker’s district an astounding 32 points to the left, leaving Democrats with a theoretical six-point advantage in Tuesday’s election.
Instead, Cox bucked the blue wave that decimated the conservative majority he once led, winning almost 52 percent of the vote.
It was a hollow victory, for sure. Democrats took majorities in both the House and the Senate for the first time in 26 years, and, at the end of the night, Cox was in no mood to address reporters. He ignored questions from the press as he greeted supporters at the tractor museum where he held his election night party and then slipped out the back door to a waiting car. The next day he informed his colleagues he would not pursue a leadership role now that his party is in the minority.
But Republicans are casting victories by Cox and a handful of other suburban Republicans as a blueprint for winning future elections. And Democrats are taking notice, too.
“It just shows that Republicans can clearly still have a hold in some of these localities,” said Mark Bergman, who directs Gov. Ralph Northam’s political action committee.
“We need to look at why we didn’t get the numbers we needed. Was it turnout? Was it about the campaign? To win in 2020 and hold these congressional seats, we need Virginia Beach, Henrico and Chesterfield to be very strong for us.”
Cox’s district is the bluest that Republicans held, according to estimates by the Virginia Public Access Project. Seven other Republicans in the suburbs of Richmond and Hampton Roads whose districts Northam and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine won last year also claimed victory – three in the Senate and four in the House.
Democrats had targeted all of them for pickups.
“We knew it was going to be competitive,” said a spokeswoman for Democrats in the House, Kathryn Gilley. Of Cox’s race, in particular, she said internal polling showed Democratic candidate Sheila Bynum-Coleman performing well. “Frankly, we’re a little surprised at the result.”
Still, she said it’s an off-off-year election, which benefited Republicans even as turnout surged from a typical low of about 30 percent to 40 percent. (Presidential years garner participation levels around 70 percent.)
“High turnout in an off- off- year election is still staggeringly low,” she said.
Cox’s campaign, meanwhile, attributed the win to hard work, good strategy, and Cox’s status as a 30-year incumbent with strong relationships in the community. (At the polls in Colonial Heights, Cox’s hometown, it felt at times like every other voter knew Cox personally, from former neighbors to the guy who sells him tires.) He canvassed extensively and held three community events he said were aimed at introducing himself to majority black portions of Chesterfield County that were added to his district.
But Matt Moran, Cox’s outgoing chief of staff, acknowledged Cox’s case is unique. Hosting events with bouncy houses and free hot dogs requires a lot of staff and a lot of money – two things Cox had more of than almost any other candidate by virtue of his status as the House’s leader.
“It’s not every day you are going to have a 30-year school teacher with the kind of goodwill he has in the community, but I don’t think that alone is enough,” said Moran. “We campaigned on issues with broad appeal, reached out to communities of color and I do think there’s a model there and lessons to be learned.”
But observers aren’t so sure that GOP candidates, however moderate and nuanced, stand a chance as the suburban demographic shift continues. Bob Holsworth, a veteran political commentator, noted that Republicans had hoped to win back seats they lost during the wave of 2017 immediately after President Donald Trump’s election.
“So I think that’s more of an issue for them than some of the challenges Democrats had in other areas,” he said. “Republicans couldn’t recover anything.”