Cox-Norment

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, left, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, right, hold a press conference on July 9 in Richmond. Both now face legitimate election challenges from Democrats.

There is sufficient worry about November that GOP senators and delegates, aides and lobbyists are privately speculating over leadership: who would be in, who would be out.

For a few Virginia Republicans, the legislative election isn't just about preserving the party's last redoubt of power.

It's about job security, influence and prestige.

Should he lose to Sheila Bynum-Coleman, Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights — with three decades in the House of Delegates — would become the Tom Foley of Virginia politics: a House speaker stunningly defeated for re-election. Foley, a Washington state Democrat, was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives when toppled in 1994.

Cox isn't the only name that could vanish from the Republican marquee, particularly if a diminished rank-and-file is restless for change that defeat engenders. In the Virginia Senate, where the path to a Democratic take-back is clearer than in the House, Republican leader Tommy Norment of James City could be done for.

This is not a topic Republicans discuss, for the record. But there is sufficient worry about November that senators and delegates, aides and lobbyists are privately speculating over leadership: who would be in, who would be out — and what that would mean come January, when the General Assembly returns.

For Cox, still favored for re-election despite having to run in a hostile, court-redrawn district, there is a confounding alternative to defeat: returning to the House as a member of the minority and relinquishing the speakership after a single two-year term.

That distinction apparently would be unmatched for more than a century. A different Cox — Edwin Piper Cox of Richmond — was speaker from 1914 until 1916, when he retired, according a 1976 House-published manual, "Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Delegates."

But then there's another short-time speaker — one with an asterisk after his name: Vance Wilkins.

Wilkins, of Amherst County, became Virginia's first Republican speaker in January 2000 but resigned in June 2002, six months into his second term because of an early #MeToo scandal. He paid a former clerical worker at his construction company $100,000 to keep quiet about his unwelcome sexual advances.

As a member of the minority — that's how Cox began his career in the House in 1990 — would he follow the lead of a Democratic predecessor, Tom Moss? The wise-cracking Moss, a majority leader and committee chairman before a nine-year run as speaker, was just another member of the House after it flipped Republican and Wilkins took over.

Moss, whose district was eliminated by GOP mapmakers after the 2000 census, would quit the House the following year to run for — and easily win — Norfolk treasurer, a six-figure-a-year job that would sweeten his taxpayer-supplied pension.

Unlike Moss, who delighted in being the center of attention and loudly complained when he wasn't, Cox is publicly modest, unimpressed with titles and trappings. As an architect of the Republican legislative ascendancy, Cox surrendered his own committee assignments to make room for GOP up-and-comers.

One of them, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah, is House Republican majority leader, the position Cox previously held. After November, it could fall to a Republican minority to decide whether Gilbert, a shoo-in for re-election, remains in charge. Would there be demands for a fresh face or a familiar one, maybe even Cox?

One senior House Republican leader seems to be on borrowed time. Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo of Fairfax was barely re-elected in 2017 and, survival skills notwithstanding, might be a casualty in 2019 of the continuing blue-ing of Northern Virginia.

Gilbert, whose bald pate and mountainous build conjure a TV wrestler, is an aggressive partisan and deft parliamentarian who — as the Republican majority shrinks — has used his mastery of issues and procedure to create opportunities for his party to advance, if only in the eyes of dispirited conservative activists back home.

That includes Gilbert's pointed questions on a Democratic bill allowing so-called late-term abortions. The awkward response of its sponsor, Kathy Tran of Fairfax, and Gov. Ralph Northam's awkward defense of her freed Republicans to loudly depict the opposition as somehow favoring infanticide.

Norment has a similar job in the Senate, where his unapologetic brand of transactional politics has allowed him — an innate moderate who used to be a Democrat — to remain as leader of a caucus that is becoming more conservative and, in recent years, has become less tolerant of his gamesmanship.

This keeps alive speculation that Mark Obenshain of Rockingham will again challenge Norment for Republican leader, having done so after the 2015 election. Also mentioned: Ryan McDougle of Hanover, who has become something of a Norment protégé, and Norment's deskmate, Steven Newman of Lynchburg.

One name not heard often: Bill Stanley of Franklin, a Ray-Ban-wearing cut-up who's as conservative as they come but also is occasionally counterintuitive; for example, breaking with the Republican right in support of easing restrictions on restoring driver's licenses revoked for non-payment of court debts. The practice is particularly tough on the poor.

Plus, Stanley is palsy-walsy with Northam.

And getting along with Democrats might, over the long run, get Republicans back in the game.

Jeff E. Schapiro is a writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared. Contact him at (804) 649-6814.

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