Virginia Republicans only need to flip six seats to retake the majority in the House of Delegates, but to do that, they must protect a handful of vulnerable Republican districts like House District 66. Former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) is retiring after assuming office in 1990, and the urban, suburban, and rural district leans Democratic. It’s one of a handful of seats that survived Trump-era Democratic waves in greater Richmond in 2017 and 2019. GOP candidate Mike Cherry is running against Democrat Katie Sponsler in a battle of turnout and name recognition.
“This is an open seat so for the first time in decades, voters have the opportunity to learn about and choose between two new candidates, without the weight of incumbency skewing the election,” Chesterfield County Democratic Committee Chair Sara Gaborik told The Virginia Star.
Cox said, “The district has obviously changed pretty dramatically. It’s basically a plus five Hillary Clinton district. So I think we won [in 2019] for several reasons. We did very, very well in Colonial Heights, which is important. We did well in Chesterfield also, but I’m coming from having been a 30-year candidate, hopefully doing a lot in the community, it’s very helpful.”
What was formerly a safe Republican seat turned competitive in 2018 when a court ruled that the district was racially gerrymandered, and required it to be redrawn. Still, Cox weathered the 2019 challenge through the power of name recognition and incumbency, winning with 51.67 percent of the vote.
He said he survived the 2019 race through a combination of big spending, door knocking, early TV ads, and an anti-tax, anti-Democratic legislation message.
Cherry is currently a councilman for Colonial Heights, a key city in the district, giving him greater name recognition there. HD 66 also includes more rural and suburban areas where he has less name recognition.
Air Force veteran and National Park Service Ranger Sponsler ran against Cox in 2017 under the old district lines. She was dramatically underfunded, raising just $30,900 to Cox’s $953,161, and she lost with 36.41 percent of the vote.
“She ran so Kirk Cox would have to spend money in his own district and not spread it around the Commonwealth, and that’s why she ran in 2017. But now with Kirk Cox retiring, and the new lines that were ordered by the court, it just is an entirely new campaign, entirely new district,” Sponsler’s Campaign Manager Khalid Naji said.
Even without Cox in the race, his presence is still felt.
“This district has had Republican representation for a very long time and, frankly, that does make it harder for the Democrat but she’s working very hard,” Gaborik said.
Each candidate has raised about $290,000, a far cry from the over $3.5 million total spent by Cox and Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman in 2019, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Cherry’s top donations include $10,500 from GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia Wins PAC and $10,000 from Middle Resolution PAC. Sponsler has more donations above $10,000: $50,000 from the Clean Virginia Fund, $25,000 from Democratic donor Sonjia Smith, $12,000 from individual Lawrence Hess, $11,000 from Swing Left PAC, and $10,000 from Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s (D-Fairfax) Energized for Change PAC.
Sponsler hasn’t gotten as much financial support as might be expected for a key Democratic race, and the statewide election is drawing resources away from Sponsler.
“Unfortunately, campaigns cost lots of money and that problem is exacerbated this year with the statewide elections. Our airwaves and mailboxes are full so it is difficult to break through,” Gaborik said.
Messaging is important in Virginia’s House races. With Trump off the ballot and Biden’s popularity decreasing, Republicans hope to pick up seats by appealing to moderates with messaging on education and public safety while highlighting the results of Democratic control. Cherry is using similar messages.
As an educator and a pastor, Cherry is mirroring Cox’s teacher-church leader profile that resonated with HD 66 voters in the past. Cherry is emphasizing his experience as an educator at a school with a strong minority presence in the student body.
“School choice is number one. Making sure that parents have the ability with their tax dollars to make their own educational decisions for their kids,” Cherry said.
He said his plan would increase per-student funding and solve crowded schools.
Naji said Sponsler’s most effective message is her pro-worker position, including repealing right-to-work laws. She’s also focused on climate change and the environment, an important issue to Chesterfield residents in her district, which has two landfills that are associated with higher rates of asthma, Naji said.
“A lot of those landfills affect majority-minority precincts that are basically just making a lot of African American kids have asthma,” Naji said. “As you get further south in the district, it gets more rural and a little bit more diverse as well. In those areas we find that gun safety, gun violence prevention also plays very well there, too.”
Both candidates have been working to boost their name recognition through strategies including door-knocking campaigns and events with statewide candidates. Sponsler’s campaign is trying to lock down her supporters by encouraging them to vote as soon as possible, and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Delegate Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) helped canvass last Saturday, and is scheduled to do it again this weekend. Attorney General Mark Herring held a virtual fundraiser for Sponsler.
The GOP statewide ticket has made multiple stops at rallies in the area. Cherry is the administrator at Life Christian Academy, which gubernatorial Glenn Youngkin recently used as a background for an ad.
Cherry said he’s been using a combination of grassroots door-knocking and a mailer campaign. His internal polls show that he’s closing an initial six-point gap.
“Personally, I’ve knocked on over 5,000 doors,” Cherry said. “So that’s 5,000 households that I specifically talked to, that I’ve reached.”
Cox said that Cherry has been well received in door knocking campaigns, including among independents.
“I thought it was going to be one of Democrats’ best shots six months ago, I mean if you look at the pure demographics, but right now I really do think Mike’s going to win,” Cox said. “Elections aren’t won on paper as you know, it’s like sports. You’ve got to play the game. I feel really good about Mike.”
“I believe he’s just saying that just so he can boost up his Republican ally,” Naji said.
He said that in door knocking campaigns, Sponsler is seeing strong interest from independents and voters who haven’t voted recently. Naji said the campaign is outperforming Republicans in early voting in HD 66.
“That’s how we’re going to win this race,” Naji said. “Just making sure everyone in the district knows who Katie is, whether it’s through mailers, digital/tv ads, or just, like I said, face-to-face conversations.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Mike Cherry” by Mike Cherry. Photo “Katie Sponsler” by Katie Sponsler. Background Photo “Virginia State Capitol” by Will Fisher CC BY-SA 2.0.