House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, declared victory at his election night party in 2019. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

When Kirk Cox lost his Republican majority in his first and only term as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, he seemed like a man who just wanted to avoid attention.

He had survived his own race in a district that got much tougher for a Republican due to court-ordered redistricting. But with the speaker’s office gone, he gave up leadership duties, going back to being a regular delegate instead of trying to lead a minority party into a new era of Democratic dominance.

He only filed one bill for the 2020 session, an uncontroversial proposal to let people keep more reward money earned from tips to police by making it tax-exempt.

He rarely spoke.

Six months later, he’s everywhere. And he’s talking a lot about where he thinks Democrats are going wrong and how he might return Republicans to relevance in a state that seems to be turning sharply against them.

In early August, Cox, R-Colonial Heights, announced his interest in running for governor in 2021, a race that could be one of the nation’s first major tests of how Republicans will fare in a post-Trump political environment if former Vice President Joe Biden prevails in November. 

To win the GOP nomination, Cox, a mild-mannered retired teacher and baseball coach who has been in the House of Delegates since 1990, would have to get past Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, whose unorthodox, Trump-style populism has galvanized hard-right supporters but drawn rebukes from Republicans who feel her behavior often goes too far. 

It’s clear Cox has more than a passing interest. Behind the scenes, he’s actively standing up a campaign by recruiting staff, retaining a data and research firm, calling up fellow Republicans for support and scheduling events with major donors.

Travis Smith, a GOP consultant formerly of Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies who joined Ron Butler and Ray Allen at the Richmond direct-mail firm Creative Direct last year, has been brought on to assist Cox’s 2021 effort. Cox has also lined up the data firm i360, which has worked with the Virginia House GOP caucus for years.

As part of the testing-the-waters phase, Richard Cullen, the former chairman of the McGuireWoods law firm and a major GOP donor, recently helped convene a call between Cox and about a dozen other business leaders.

“Everybody just likes Kirk,” Cullen said in an interview. “That may sound trite in today’s rough-and-tumble world. But I think people are looking for somebody with a personality that’s not polarizing… I think in today’s climate you can’t underestimate a genuinely good person.”

Cullen and other Cox allies say his background in education — an issue he’s emphasized in the legislature by pushing for college tuition freezes and teacher pay raises — could give him crossover appeal in the types of populous, Democratic-leaning areas where Republicans have rapidly lost ground.

Calling on relationships built over a 30-year General Assembly career, Cox already has the backing of senior House Republicans like House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott.

In a recent interview, Cox, 63, said he feels “very committed” to a 2021 bid, though he doesn’t expect to make anything official until after the November elections. In his telling, the biggest motivator to seek a bigger role was seeing what Democrats did with power once they got it.

“I felt that we left the state in very good shape,” Cox said, emphasizing pro-business policies in particular. “I just saw that whole philosophy sort of thrown out.”

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, sets up his computer during the veto session at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, VA Wednesday, April 22, 2020.
Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, sets up his computer during the veto session at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, VA Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The House members were meeting outside in a tent instead of the House Chamber in order to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/POOL/Bob Brown).

Alarmed by what he characterizes as lackadaisical leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer of mass protests over police brutality and racism, Cox said the General Assembly’s ongoing special session has solidified that belief.

“Now that the Democrats have totally been in charge I think the contrast could not be clearer,” Cox said. “They have struggled, to me, mightily to govern.”

Cox hasn’t shied away from criticizing his successor, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the first woman to wield the gavel in the House’s 400-year history, for perceived legislative dysfunction. In the special session, he said, Democrats have been slow to take up the pandemic-rattled state budget and have seemed disinterested in addressing widespread disruption to K-12 education, focusing instead on an “anti-policing agenda” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think Black lives are extremely important,” Cox said. “I guess I think sometimes we have a false choice here. I do think you can be supportive of the police and good community policing and also doing better as far as addressing some of the racial inequities. Obviously there’s a lot of pain out there.”

Cox has sought to emphasize the property damage that has accompanied anti-racist protests in Richmond, shooting a social media video outside the boarded-up state Capitol building and blaming the situation on “Democratic leadership.”

If he were to become the 2021 gubernatorial nominee, Democrats seem poised to argue Virginia voters have already seen Cox’s vision for the state and rejected it.

“It comes as no surprise Kirk Cox is angry with all the historic achievements Democrats have accomplished in the General Assembly,” said Filler-Corn spokesman Jake Rubenstein. “His entire two-year speakership was based on an extreme agenda  of blocking the progress that Virginians wanted.”

Cox critics are also quick to point out he needed a random-draw tiebreaker to become speaker when the GOP nearly lost its majority in 2017.

Kirk Cox is known for how quickly he lost a 20-year Republican majority in the House of Delegates,” said Grant Fox, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “This gubernatorial run — which is built around trying to be more extreme than Amanda Chase — is just a sad attempt at recapturing the relevance he lost along with his speakership.”

A wave of electoral losses has left the Virginia GOP with a thin bench of potential statewide candidates, wiping out many of the suburban moderates some strategists see as having the best chance to broaden the party’s appeal beyond its rural base. And in a former battleground state they controlled just a decade ago, the Trump era has given Virginia Republicans little reason for optimism.

Ed Gillespie, a mainstream, Bush-wing Republican with a background in the D.C. lobbying/consulting world, fell short in his run for governor in 2017 while never fully embracing Trump. 

In 2018, staunchly pro-Trump conservative Corey Stewart, who came surprisingly close to upsetting Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial primary, was trounced by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Last year, the GOP lost its majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. As Democrats took full legislative control, they conducted a sweeping overhaul of state policy, passing bills to expand voting access, prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, roll back restrictions on abortion, move toward ending reliance on fossil fuels, allow the removal of Confederate statutes, toughen gun laws and raise the minimum wage.

In this year’s statewide contest, Republicans are running a little-known candidate, retired U.S. Army officer Daniel Gade, against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who had a double-digit lead in recent polls.

Republicans haven’t won statewide in a decade, but many believe the environment could quickly turn more competitive if President Donald Trump loses in November and the anti-Trump voter backlash subsides.

With Chase the first candidate to declare for 2021, some were relieved to see Cox — who has a record of pairing kitchen-table issues like education and the economy with firm social conservatism on abortion and guns — step up as a potential alternative.

Former Republican Gov. George Allen called Cox a “hard-working and conscientious public servant leader,” but said he’s not endorsing anyone yet. He added that he’d also be enthusiastic about “well-qualified and commendable candidates” such as GOP Congressmen Rob Wittman and Denver Riggleman and former Congresswoman Barbara Comstock.

“But, I’m very positive and happy that Kirk Cox is stepping forward as a candidate Republicans and all voters can admire for his integrity, knowledge and constructive ideas to improve opportunities for all Virginians,” Allen said.

Riggleman, a Nelson County distillery owner who lost his seat in Congress at a convention this summer amid a backlash over his decision to officiate a same-sex wedding, has said he’s considering running. Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia tech entrepreneur who made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2013, is also frequently mentioned as a possible contender.

Bill Carrico, a former state senator and ex-state trooper from Southwest Virginia, has also expressed interest in running. He recently hosted Cox in Galax, where the two went to church together.

In an interview, Carrico said he has made it clear to Cox he’s still considering a run of his own.

“I’m not ready to say that this is not a path forward to me,” Carrico said. “However because we’re close friends, I think it’s something that we can teach our party and everybody else. You can run a campaign and let the people choose who has the best vision and who has the best path forward and not be so divisive toward each other.”

Relations seem frostier between Cox and Chase, who both represent Chesterfield-area districts.

In an interview, Chase said her supporters see Cox as a career politician and part of a Richmond “good old boys network.” Many were surprised, she said, to see someone who looked ready for retirement start talking about running for governor.

“I have challenged and run against the Republican establishment elitists, the pay-to-play in Richmond for over a decade,” Chase said, citing her work as a campaign consultant prior to joining the Senate in 2016. “And I’ve always won, quite honestly.”

Virginia State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, arrives in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia prior to the start of the Senate session at the facility Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Chase who has a doctors note excusing her from wearing a mask has been asked to hold a shield up to her face when entering and exiting the chamber.
Virginia State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, arrives in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia prior to the start of the Senate session at the facility Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Chase, who has a doctors note excusing her from wearing a mask, has been asked to hold a shield up to her face when entering and exiting the chamber. (AP Photo/Steve Helber/Pool)

She said her constituents were upset by Cox’s role in passing Medicaid expansion. As speaker, Cox oversaw Medicaid expansion’s passage in the House in 2018 after opposing it for years, a move some Republicans saw as a pragmatic nod to political reality after the House GOP lost 15 seats in 2017. Others saw it as a capitulation.

“What they have told me is that when he had that leadership position, when the pressure was put on him he caved in to the pressure,” Chase said of her constituents. “They see me as different. They see me as someone who is strong.”

Cox said he took a “practical” approach to the issue by building in conservative safeguards like the so-called “kill switch” to roll back expansion if federal dollars stop paying for it, likening what passed in Virginia to the approach taken by Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana.

“Clearly, in the House we did not have the votes to block expanding Medicaid,” Cox said.

Chase also suggested her background in banking and finance made her better prepared for executive-branch leadership.

“’I highly respect our teachers. My mom was a school teacher,” Chase said. “But how does that translate over into being a governor? I just think it’s very different.”

Cox disagreed.

“I think a teaching background is a great background to run from,” he said. “You’re just relating to so many people on a real level.”

Chase said she’s not concerned about Cox’s ability to raise money or win endorsements, adding she doubts he’ll ever catch her “on the social media front.”

“People like my passion, my enthusiasm,” she said.

Cox insists he’s not making his decision based on who else is in the race, but he said he wants “to see the Republican Party put its best foot forward.”

“You also need to show people a vision. It can’t be just all emotion,” Cox said. “People also have to be uplifted somewhat.”