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Former Republican speakers’ seat represents best chance for House Democrats

polling place
FILE PHOTO: A polling location in the 2020 general election. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia’s 66th House of Delegates district has been represented by Republican and former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox since 1990. In most of his elections, he hasn’t faced an opponent. But Cox isn’t running for reelection this year. He instead focused efforts and cash on a failed attempt for the Republican candidacy for governor.

Even if he did run again, victory no longer seems guaranteed. In statewide and national elections, the district has leaned further left over the years. Katie Sponsler is the Democrat hoping to capitalize on that, while Republican Mike Cherry is campaigning with Cox to benefit from his political clout.

House of Delegates District 66 changed considerably in only the last four years, after a round of court-mandated redistricting due to racially gerrymandered maps pulled the district to include voters from South Richmond and North Chesterfield. From a partisan standpoint, that introduced a swath of Democratic voters to fight it out with Cox’s base in Colonial Heights.

“It’s all about that redistricting,” said Ernest McGowen, associate professor of politics at the University of Richmond.

Data from the  Virginia Public Access Project supports McGowen’s analysis. District 66 had the greatest political swing of all redrawn districts, moving 32 points to the left. That shift showed in the 2019 general election results, when Cox won by only five points, his closest margin ever.

But it’s not all good news for Democrats, who will be contending with lower voter turnout without the energy of a national campaign, particularly one, McGowen said, against former President Donald Trump.

“When turnout goes down, it goes down for a certain type of person,” McGowen said. “It generally goes down for someone who is not a habitual voter, and someone who does not have high levels of income and education.”

He says Cox’s wealthy base in Colonial Heights, which votes in off years, may have enough turnout to overtake parts of Chesterfield and South Richmond that don’t have the habit of off-year voting. 

Cherry is also helped by Cox’s frequent presence at his campaign events, seemingly tapping into his well of connections and name recognition.

“You may get to a situation where the turnout gets depressed, just enough to where those people with the higher levels of income and education are able to come out and dominate the district,” McGowen said.

Neither party has focused many resources on the race. According to VPAP, both candidates are sitting around $500,000 in funds raised. In 2019, the totals were closer to the two million dollar mark.

Both Sponsler and Cherry are Air Force Veterans, and both have campaigned on education issues that have become signature to Virginia’s 2021 election. Cherry, like Cox, is an educator. Both candidates tend to follow state-wide messaging. For instance, Cherry says he supports police funding increases, while Sponsler says she’d look to alternatives for community safety.

All 100 House of Delegates seats - and control of the chamber - are in the hands of voters this year. Election Day is on Tuesday, Nov 2. Early voting ends on Saturday, Oct 30.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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