RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Former House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) is running to be Virginia’s next governor.

Who is Kirk Cox?

The long-time Republican leader and retired public school teacher of three decades made his bid official on Tuesday after teasing the announcement on social media in August.

In an interview with 8News, Cox said he decided to run after witnessing several months of Democratic control in Virginia. He pledged to fight back against cancel culture, elitism and big-government mentality. Cox specifically pointed to higher taxes, clean energy policies that could result in increased bills and recent police reforms as evidence that the state needs to elect new leadership in 2021.

“When it comes to excessive use of force, yes we have to deal with that responsibly but that is not what we did,” Cox said. “We ended up with a series of bills that were extremely anti-law enforcement.”

Cox has also been critical of the how Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has handled the coronavirus pandemic, blaming him for problems with unemployment benefits, “unclear” business restrictions and various mandates that he considers executive overreach.

“I think you have to be very, very careful with mandates but certainly I would encourage everyone to wear masks. I think that is the responsible thing to do,” Cox said. “The role of the governor is to have steady policies that protect people and protect businesses.”

Since first being elected to the House of Delegates in 1989, Cox has led Republicans as the Majority Whip, Majority Leader, and House Speaker. Cox said his credentials in Virginia politics are part of what makes him best-suited to step into the state’s top executive office. He also touted his record of cutting taxes, freezing college tuition, and slashing regulations. 

While criticizing the state’s leftward lunge, Cox also emphasized his success in an area that has backed Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. He cites this as evidence that he can win, even though a Republican hasn’t taken a statewide office in Virginia in more than a decade.

“I have a reputation of being respectful, of working with people, of listening, which you need to do. That doesn’t mean you compromise your own values. I’m a pro-life, Second Amendment conservative,” Cox said.

The state of the race

Cox is the second Republican to formally declare a gubernatorial campaign ahead of the 2021 race. His announcement sets the stage for a primary face off against state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), though it’s not too late for other hopefuls to make things official.

Chase, who launched her candidacy in February, has closely aligned herself with President Donald Trump. She has proudly refused to follow coronavirus restrictions and bolstered conspiracy theories that the presidential race was ‘stolen,’ which election officials across the country have firmly denied. At times, Chase has been sharply criticized by Virginia’s Republican establishment.

Asked about claims that widespread voter fraud contributed to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Cox said allowing Trump to pursue legal challenges will help give his supporters peace of mind.

“When both sides go ‘the election was stolen’ or ‘I definitely won’ that is not the right way to handle it. You have to handle it in a calm way,” Cox said. “Once those things are decided, we need to rally behind whoever the winner is.”

8News Political Analyst Richard Meagher said Cox’s entry into the race could pit the populist wing of the Republican party against more traditional conservatives.

“It’s not a new story. Generally, the establishment candidates tend to win in those types of battles but not always,” Meagher said.

On the other side of the aisle, an already crowded Democratic field is expected to get a little bit bigger. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) was the first to announce her candidacy, followed by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

Attorney General Mark Herring recently announced he’s running for re-election in 2021, discarding expectations that he would also run for governor.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe has filed paperwork signaling his intentions but has yet to make it official. In Virginia, governors are not allowed to run for consecutive terms but nothing bars them from running again after another person has served. 

Meagher said recent Democratic success across the state has emboldened candidates who have not held statewide office before to try their chances–perhaps contributing to the unusually large field. He said this group is also notably diverse, reflecting the push for new leadership following racial justice protests that consumed much of 2020.

Meagher said, if McAuliffe does decide to run for governor again, it would be a first in recent memory.

“McAuliffe can argue he is electable, he is very good at fundraising and he has played a leadership role in the party over the last few years, particularly as scandal has hit some of its top leaders,” Meagher said. “The reaction against that is by a new wing, the progressive wing of the Democratic party in Virginia who argue it is time for a woman, a person of color or really just a new face.”