RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia House Speaker M. Kirk Cox will launch the first TV ad of his re-election campaign on Tuesday, airing a feel-good spot that features minority constituents calling the Republican "one of us."
Cox, one of the most powerful GOP politicians in the state, is running for reelection under a court-imposed map that turned his Republican stronghold into a district that now tilts blue and where more than a third of voters are African American.
The 30-second ad, which will air on Richmond-area broadcast and cable TV through Sept. 2, reflects his outreach to a more diverse constituency. Three of the four people who offer onscreen testimonials about Cox are residents of color.
The $91,000 ad buy is a soft sell, with piano music playing in the background and a handful of men and women speaking directly into the camera about Cox, a retired government teacher who lives in Colonial Heights and has served 29 years as a lawmaker. He grew up in the area and raised his four sons there.
"Kirk is passionate about education, and the community and doing the right thing," says a young white woman, identified as a former student.
"He's a mentor of mine because he's gone through some of the things that I'm going through now with sons, and so I'm learning a lot about raising boys through him," a black man says.
Another black man identified as a veteran adds, "He loves his community. I know he loves the [American] Legion, the military, and the families. He's definitely one of us."
Interspersed with the testimonials are images of Cox holding a baby, shaking hands with people and strolling with his wife, hand-in-hand and smiling.
"Our first ad speaks to how people feel about Kirk, and reflects the positive campaign we are going to run," said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman who works for the speaker's campaign as well as his government office.
The ad makes Cox one of the first legislative candidates to go up on TV, behind at least one Republican state senator, Siobhan Dunnavant (Henrico), who is fending off a challenger in suburban swing territory that has turned blue since the election of President Donald Trump.
Democrats called Cox's early ad buy a sign that he fears Sheila Bynum-Coleman, his challenger. An African American building contractor, she grew up near the district in Midlothian and nearly unseated another Republican in a nearby district in 2017. She decided to take on Cox after the redrawn map put them in the same district.
"As much as Cox is trying to paint himself as the friendly neighborhood delegate, he's one of the most powerful Republicans in Virginia, and he's clearly scared of running his first competitive race in years," said Kathryn Gilley, spokeswoman for the House Democratic caucus. "Sheila Bynum-Coleman has the momentum and the support - and Cox knows it."
Bynum-Coleman's campaign issued a statement in response to the ad. "Republican Speaker Cox's efforts to rebrand himself as 'one of us' doesn't square with his 29-year public record of taking hard right votes that are way outside the mainstream of the district," the campaign said. "Cox's attempt to keep his grip on power and buy this election in August demonstrates that Sheila's message of economic fairness and keeping our communities safe is clearly resonating with voters."
Virginia Republicans are defending razor thin majorities in the General Assembly in November, when all 100 seats in the House and all 40 in the state Senate will be on the ballot. The GOP controls the House 51 to 48 and the Senate 20 to 19, with one vacancy in each chamber.
House Republicans must mount that battle on a revamped political map handed down after a years-long political fight. Federal courts ruled that the House map drawn in 2011 was racially gerrymandered and imposed a new one drawn by a court-appointed special master.
As a result, Cox and five other Republican incumbents face tougher dynamics in their bids for reelection. The speaker's district swung from favoring Republicans by 26 points to tilting toward Democrats by six, from 76 percent white to 58 percent, and from 18 percent black to 34 percent, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Cox had $448,000 on hand in his personal campaign account heading into July, plus $761,000 in a political action committee set up to support his whole caucus. Bynum-Coleman had $124,000 on hand. An independent candidate, Linnard Harris Sr., had less than $9,000.