RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With so much focus on the 2020 presidential campaign, it's worth noting there are crucial elections in several states this year, including in Virginia, where next month, all state lawmaker seats are up for grabs. And Democrats think they can flip the Statehouse. Republicans have held the majority there for two decades. Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF has a look at one critical race where Virginia's speaker of the House is facing a tough challenge.
KIRK COX: Young man, what would you like? Cheese or pepperoni?
MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: You'd be forgiven for not realizing he's Virginia's most powerful Republican. He is wearing plastic gloves and handing out Little Caesar's.
COX: We have pizza over here and popcorn over here.
NOE-PAYNE: Fara Love is a lifelong resident of Colonial Heights, a community in central Virginia she calls quiet and close-knit. Kirk Cox has been her delegate for nearly 30 years. Her daughter babysat his children.
FARA LOVE: Oh, Kirk Cox is a wonderful, hometown boy.
NOE-PAYNE: That's the feeling among many in this crowd. Cox was a high-school civics teacher here for decades. Tonight at the local ballpark is movie night, one of several events that Cox is hosting as he runs for re-election.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our delegate, Kirk Cox.
NOE-PAYNE: But while he may be our delegate to this community, to Virginia, he's speaker of the House. He's the leader who compromised to convince fellow Republicans to pass Medicaid expansion. He raised teacher pay. And he shut down a special session on gun control after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Now he's fighting to keep this seat in the only competitive race he's run since he was first elected in 1989.
COX: Oh, yeah. My first race was - I was a heavy underdog. I was a young schoolteacher the first time I ran with - given almost no chance to win.
NOE-PAYNE: Adding to the challenge this year, he has a newly drawn district. A judge ruled the seat racially gerrymandered. By one estimate, the district is now a third more Democratic.
COX: I see it as a challenge to really in the new district - to get to know people and serve them. That's what we're here for. We're public servants.
NOE-PAYNE: Because Virginia has off-year elections, political pundits watch the state to gauge how national politics may play out the following year. For instance, in 2017, Virginia Democrats turned out in droves, decimating the Republicans' supermajority in the Statehouse. Then a year later, Democrats took control in the House of Representatives. Now all eyes are on 2020. And if Virginia is the bellwether for the country, this race may be the bellwether for the state.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hallelujah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hallelujah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hallelujah.
NOE-PAYNE: Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman is Cox's opponent. She's a real estate agent in her 40s who's never held elected office.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's in the room.
NOE-PAYNE: During a recent visit to Union Branch Baptist Church, she tells the congregation she could be the first black woman to unseat a sitting speaker of the House. The pastor has her stand before him.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERGY: I believe today is a good day just to surround one sister and believe God for her and with her. Is that all right?
UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERGY: Amen. Amen.
NOE-PAYNE: He calls up every woman in the sanctuary. They encircle her, heads bowed.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTES)
NOE-PAYNE: For Bynum-Coleman, it was an emotional moment.
SHEILA BYNUM-COLEMAN: People were holding my hand and hugging me. And I could just feel the energy.
NOE-PAYNE: She says she's felt that same energy knocking doors when people tell her they want more funding for public schools and gun control. Bynum-Coleman's daughter survived a shooting at a party just a few years ago.
BYNUM-COLEMAN: All of this lack of action on issues that are important to the people in their community is creating so much excitement, so much positive energy. So many people are getting involved from all over the country.
NOE-PAYNE: In a sign of that outside interest, more than 30 percent of Bynum-Coleman's campaign funds have come from outside the state, including from progressive PACs and individual donations from people in New York and California.
BYNUM-COLEMAN: You know, I hear all the time, so goes Virginia - so goes the nation. And so people are paying attention to what's happening right now. Can Virginia turn out the Democratic vote.
NOE-PAYNE: Charry Brown is a Democrat. She knows a lot is at stake this November. She was one of the women who came to stand before the pastor during the service.
CHARRY BROWN: It felt as if we were part - are a part of a shift, a movement. It felt like a very powerful prayer.
NOE-PAYNE: The test this November for Democrats will be turning those prayers into votes. Historically, turnout in Virginia's off-year elections is low. And that's favored incumbent Republicans.
UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing) Oh, how you walk with me.
NOE-PAYNE: For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Chesterfield, Va.
UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing) Oh, how you talk with me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.