The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former Virginia House speaker Kirk Cox says he’ll seek GOP nomination for governor

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) addresses a crowd at his election night party in 2019 after winning another term. Cox announced Tuesday that he is running for the Republican nomination for Virginia governor. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Former Virginia House speaker Kirk Cox officially entered the running for the 2021 Republican nomination for governor Tuesday, casting himself as an experienced lawmaker who understands the state's complex political landscape.

Cox, 63, is a retired high school civics teacher who has spent 31 years as a delegate representing Colonial Heights, a suburban city between Richmond and Petersburg.

He served as speaker of the House for two sessions, from 2018 to 2019, before Republicans lost their majority in the chamber in last year’s elections. He had been House majority leader and is known as a pragmatic lawmaker who has a conservative record but is willing to cut deals across the aisle.

“I’m often attacked on the left for being such a consistent conservative, [but] I am someone who will listen to all sides, go into communities and listen to what’s going on,” Cox said in an interview. “I think we need to have civility and respect for people.”

That stance puts him at odds with the only other Republican who has so far announced for the race: state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), who casts herself as more Trump than President Trump and delights in attacking Republicans and Democrats alike.

A few other Republicans have publicly pondered joining the contest, including former state senator Charles “Bill” Carrico of Grayson County; state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta); and Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur who unsuccessfully sought the 2013 nomination for lieutenant governor.

The Democratic side of the race is already crowded, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William) all having announced plans to run. Former governor Terry McAuliffe is waiting in the wings, sending strong signals that he’s mulling another run and suggesting he’ll have an announcement soon.

All are jockeying to replace Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who — like all Virginia governors — is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.

No Republican has won statewide in Virginia since 2009, and since then the state has only become bluer as diverse populations in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond have rebelled against Trump’s brand of Republicanism.

Cox said he made connections around the state during his time in leadership positions and pointed out that his district is “the bluest seat of any Republican in the General Assembly.” That’s because court-ordered redistricting last year turned his home turf distinctly Democratic, a greater shift than any other district in the state.

Cox responded to the sea change with a heavy schedule of campaign events in the community, including outreach to Black voters, and defeated a well-funded African American opponent.

In Virginia, redrawn districts test Republicans — including House Speaker Kirk Cox

He has taken some positions that drew fire from the Republican base — most notably, Cox was one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who voted in favor of expanding Medicaid in 2018. He defended that position as a vote for a “Mike Pence model,” with work requirements for recipients similar to the plan enacted in Indiana when the vice president was governor there.

Cox also worked with Northam in 2018 on a bipartisan deal to cut the state’s business regulations by 25 percent while overhauling some criminal justice measures.

One historical trend seems to bode well for a GOP nominee in Virginia: Until McAuliffe broke the pattern in 2013, Virginians had for decades picked a governor from the party that lost the previous year’s presidential election.

With Democrats now controlling the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly — and soon the White House — Cox is positioning himself as a brake on one-party domination.

“It would be fantastic to have a firewall against this sort of unchecked, one-party control of Virginia right now,” said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House minority leader. He said Cox is an especially exciting candidate for Republicans because of his track record.

“Having a candidate who can carry forth our values while being successful in suburbia . . . that’s certainly a very attractive prospect,” Gilbert said.

The challenge for any Republican in Virginia is that toning down the message to satisfy the suburbs can alienate the rural, red base. Some of Cox’s colleagues in the House said he is well-positioned to find the right balance through a focus on “kitchen table” issues.

“Folks are polarized, but I think Kirk is somebody who can talk to anybody. He can present a vision of how we move forward as a commonwealth,” said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott).

Cox said he will run on a strong belief in gun rights — it was under his gavel that the General Assembly adjourned a 2019 special session on gun control after only 90 minutes — and a firm opposition to abortion. He blasted some of the measures related to policing that Democrats passed during this year’s special legislative session, such as limiting officers’ abilities to pull over motorists for suspicion of drug use and creating an option for judges to reduce an assault on a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor.

“The morale of law enforcement is totally in the tank,” he said.

He also criticized Northam’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that the public messaging has been confusing, that the state should have had a detailed plan for at least a partial reopening of K-12 schools and that the economic recession was “self-inflicted.”

Cox treads carefully on the subject of Trump. He said the president revealed a strong sense among some voters that the establishment no longer cares about them, and he noted that Trump drew more Virginia votes in his loss than Northam got in winning the gubernatorial race three years ago.

Cox announced his candidacy Tuesday with a news release and a video urging voters to “fight back” against “cancel culture” and accusing Democrats of tearing Richmond apart. Pressed to explain how he would overcome Trump’s unpopularity among a majority of Virginia voters, Cox turned the question around.

“I would flip that,” he said, ticking off a list of what he called extreme positions taken by national Democrats, such as talking of socialism and defunding police. “I think that’s out of the mainstream, and you’re going to have to, as a Democrat, explain why that’s not the dominant philosophy. I think that’s going to be really a struggle for them.”