Garrison Coward is 28 and palpably millennial. He’s also well-connected, working on his third academic degree, and African-American. Republican leaders believe Coward is their best shot at unseating Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond.
Down in Chesterfield is Carrie Coyner — a School Board member, practicing lawyer and mom of three pre-teens. Coyner is running in a district held by a man, retiring Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, for the last 25 years.
Coward and Coyner are among seven female or African-American candidates running as Republicans in 10 competitive contests that the party is targeting. Backed by party leaders, both represent new faces in the GOP’s bid to retain control of the House in the November elections.
“At the end of the day, people care about having good representatives. But we have been stuck with a monolithic mold of what a typical Republican looks like,” said Coward, who is the COO of predictive analytics firm BizCents and a former campaign manager for Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st.
“I think we can do more to reach out to different minority groups and bring them into the fold with a messenger like myself.”
The district Coward is running in, which includes parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties and part of the city of Richmond, is heavily suburban, a demographic he believes will respond well to his “center-right” views.
“After I talked to some of my friends, who don’t ascribe to that traditional GOP mold, I realized they want some of the same things: good government, good education, lower taxes,” he said.
Republicans’ target races represent a large swath of Virginia’s suburbs. Going into November’s elections, Republican leaders in the state hope to gain ground in the suburbs, where three Republican members of Congress in Virginia lost their seats last fall as part of a national wave in which Democrats took control of the U.S. House.
One NBC News headline last November that featured the race between Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger and then-Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, read, “Look to Virginia for early signs of ‘suburban revolt.’”
Last year’s elections in Virginia weren’t a sudden change as much as an affirmation of a shift long in the works. In 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor, he captured the state’s suburban strongholds, including Fairfax County with 51 percent of the vote and Chesterfield with 66 percent.
In 2018, Republican Corey Stewart, the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, received just 27 percent of the vote in Fairfax County against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. In Chesterfield, where Spanberger topped Brat by 10,700 votes, Stewart captured just 44 percent of the vote.
That’s according to a recent analysis by the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, a group that formed in the spring of 2018 to study the Republican strategy in the suburbs.
“The Republican Party definitely has a lot of problems with suburban voters,” said D.J. Jordan, who is running as a Republican in a district now held by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William.
Jordan, who commutes to Alexandria where he works in public relations, said focusing on the issues that matter to suburban voters, like transportation, education and business growth, will be critical for winning in districts like his.
“I think diversity does play a role, too,” said Jordan, who is African-American. “Our state’s suburban regions are so diversified — Prince William County is a minority-majority county — and the Republican Party has failed miserably in reaching those people.”
“To be able to better connect with the suburbs, I do think we need to be more diverse,” he said.
Jordan, who has four children of his own and has fostered others, was appointed by McDonnell to serve on the state’s Social Services board, which oversees the foster care system.
While he said the transportation issues facing his Northern Virginia district will be the focus of his campaign, he is also hoping to work on improving services for the state’s foster children and struggling families.
“A large amount of the people that we serve are people of color. The policies in social services impact the African-American community significantly,” he said.
Republicans hold 51 seats in the House to Democrats’ 49. Democrats picked up 15 seats in the 2017 House elections — most of them won by women.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who has worked on recruiting and fundraising toward retaining control of the House, emphasized that view in an interview, saying that efforts to recruit a more diverse crop of candidates this year is work toward diversifying the party.
“It is important to have candidates that reflect our different communities,” Cox said. “We have strong women and African-American candidates this year, a good diverse slate of ‘A’ candidates.”
Cox said that after last November’s congressional election, he spent a lot of time studying the outcomes and what they meant for the state’s General Assembly districts — all to come up with a clearer picture of the types of Republican candidates needed for 2019.
Last November saw Virginia women turn out at a higher rate than men, breaking with the pattern of lower female turnout in nonpresidential election years.
That turnout translated to an additional 53,000 women casting ballots, according to Department of Elections voter participation data analyzed by the Virginia Public Access Project.
“Having highly educated women running, who have practical solutions and have done great things in our community is a good place to start attracting those votes,” Cox said. “You can go into those neighborhoods and identify with working moms.”
Coyner said her campaign is focused on appealing to specific issues that affect voters in suburban Chesterfield, particularly families.
“Being a young female and mom, I don’t think we have enough young parents at the state level. When we’re talking about job creation, those jobs aren’t for you and me. They’re for our children,” Coyner said.
“Every family, regardless of their background, wants the same things for their kids every day when they hit the ground: education, diverse and good jobs, that they’re safe when they get home from school,” she said.
She recounted that while door knocking, two women who didn’t identify as Republicans appeared pleased with her emphasis on those issues.
GayDonna Vandergriff echoed that sentiment in an interview. Vandergriff, who is a business professor at Strayer University, is running for the seat of Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.
She said most of the suburban voters she interacts with are less concerned about her party affiliation than with the issues they most care about — education, business growth, college affordability.
On being a female candidate, Vandergriff said: “I just feel that women deserve choices on the ballot that give them the possibility to select a woman to represent them in government.” She added, “I was able to step forward out of service in my community.”
Cox also pointed to Mary Margaret Kastelberg, a candidate for the seat now held by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico. Rodman is running for the Senate seat held by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. Kastelberg works in investment management.
The share of ballots cast by voters ages 18 to 29 also spiked in 2018, a year when trends suggest it should have fallen sharply compared with a peak in a presidential year. Instead, young voters accounted for 13 percent of ballots cast, compared with 8 percent in the midterm election in 2014.
As for the swayable swath of voters in that age group, Coward is crafting his appeal.
“Baby boomers and Gen Xers like to talk about millennials as though we’re really young. But we’re here now,” Coward said. “We are contributing members of our communities and our societies. … [Millennials] are yearning for representation.”