In Richmond, Va., Garrison Coward and a campaign volunteer approach their first home, making the rounds in a mostly white neighborhood called Windsor Farms, where the sidewalks are made of brick and streets are named after English universities.
“Mr. Smallfield,” the volunteer cues Coward, reading from an app on his phone.
Coward strides to the door. He has done this before in past jobs as a campaign aide to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., and as the Republican Party of Virginia’s political director. He was drawn to the party’s free market ethos in high school, thanks to economics classes and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Now the 29-year-old is a candidate himself — one of two African American Republicans running for a seat in the state House in a legislature that has hosted just two black Republicans since Reconstruction and none since 2004. Meanwhile, Democrats are running 35 people of color in the House.
Smallfield answers from around a screen door, and Coward quickly introduces himself. He launches into his pitch: equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes, lower taxes, better technologies in schools.
“DMV operates on Windows XP or something like that, and I was probably in sixth grade when those came out,” Coward quips.
Smallfield laughs and wishes Coward luck.
This district was once reliably red. Then came President Trump’s 2016 win. That provoked a 2017 backlash that helped Virginia Democrats flip 15 seats in the House of Delegates, including the seat for this district, which Democrat Dawn Adams won by a few hundred votes.
Republican strategists fear that next month’s elections could cost them both chambers of the legislature. But the party’s Virginia problems predate Trump; Republicans haven’t won a statewide office since 2009.
“I think the Republican Party here realizes that they cannot win another statewide election without doing better in the African American community,” says D.J. Jordan, a young black Republican running for a seat in Northern Virginia. “The math isn’t there.”
Jordan is a former journalist and GOP congressional staffer whose experience as a foster parent helped push him into politics. When Republican leaders approached Jordan about running, he accepted.
According to him, the party has a real shot at winning black voters. Around a quarter of African Americans describe themselves as conservative. Jordan thinks they’ll like his emphasis on individual responsibility and criminal justice reform.
And he sees an opening this year. In February, Virginia’s Democratic governor and attorney general both admitted to wearing blackface when they were younger.
But last year, Republican primary voters chose far-right Corey Stewart as their nominee for U.S. Senate, giving a national platform to the former county supervisor known for his harsh immigration policies, ties to white nationalists and outspoken pro-Confederate views.
Republicans need to make up for lost time, according to Jordan.
“The Republican Party has done a horrible job of being engaged in the African American community on a yearly basis in a very real way,” he says. “And the Democratic Party has.”
Jordan thinks Virginia Republicans are on the right path. But their biggest obstacle may be the president; a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 4 out of 5 black voters believe Trump is racist.
Leah Wright Rigueur, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University who has spent time studying black Republicans through history, says African American voters have generally responded best to Republicans who distance themselves from the national party when it comes to race.
“There is a real challenge in voting for a party that you perceive as hostile to your rights and to your community,” Rigueur says.
After the Civil War, black voters often cast their ballot for Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. That changed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Wright says the GOP needs its own transformational policy to win black voters back.
“They would need to propose something that is dramatic, larger than life and directly speaks to black communities’ issues and concerns in 2019,” Rigueur says.
That resonates with Democratic Del. Lamont Bagby, who heads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Bagby says Republicans would need a wholesale change in identity to successfully court African Americans.
“The African American candidates that are running on the Republican side are so apologetic for running as a Republican, and it’s not because they’ve done anything wrong,” Bagby said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s because of what their party stands for.”
Coward says he doesn’t define himself by his party. He thinks his vision of lower taxes and less regulation will resonate with voters of all stripes. But says the president doesn’t always help his cause.
“Look, I don’t agree with some of his antics on Twitter,” Coward said. “I think that some things that he says is just absolutely out of line.”
Coward says people are tired of what he calls identity politics. He says voters want their politicians to focus on having hard conversations. But they’ll have to talk over Trump, whose presence is larger and louder than just about anyone else.