SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
And now to Virginia, where big elections are just around the corner. Every seat in the statehouse is up for grabs in next month's election, and there will be a lot of new names on the ballot, including two young men running to be the first black Republicans elected to the legislature in almost 20 years. Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond says they're attempting to carve out a place in a party dominated by President Trump.
BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: It's a swampy evening in Richmond, and Garrison Coward is starting to sweat as he goes door to door.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)
PAVIOUR: He's making the rounds in a mostly white neighborhood called Windsor Farms. Here, the sidewalks are made of brick, and streets are named after English universities.
GARRISON COWARD: Hey, Mr. Smallfield. How are you? Garrison Coward - I'm running for the Virginia House of Delegates...
SMALLFIELD: Oh, hey.
COWARD: ...Republican nominee, just out here introducing ourselves to voters and letting you know there's an upcoming election on November 5.
PAVIOUR: This district was reliably red. Then came Trump in 2016. In 2017, Virginia Democrats split 15 seats, including this one. Now Garrison Coward is fighting to take it back after being active behind the scenes in the Republican Party for years.
SMALLFIELD: All right.
COWARD: All right. Thank you, sir.
SMALLFIELD: Good luck.
COWARD: I appreciate it.
SMALLFIELD: Nice to meet you.
COWARD: You, too.
COWARD: As Coward bounces from house to house, I ask him why he's drawn to the Republican Party. He says it comes from his belief that capitalism can help people.
COWARD: You know, we've got folks who are trying to come in and grow their businesses and their lives, frankly. And I think the best way to do that is through lower taxes and less government and less regulations on all fronts.
PAVIOUR: Coward is one of two black Republicans this year vying for a seat in the Virginia legislature, where they have been just two black Republicans elected since Reconstruction. Meanwhile, a quarter of the Democratic candidates for the House identify as African American. D.J. Jordan is the other black Republican candidate. He's a former GOP congressional staffer running for a seat in Northern Virginia.
DJ JORDAN: I think the Republican Party here realizes that they cannot win another statewide election without doing better in the African American community. It's just the math isn't there.
PAVIOUR: Jordan thinks the party has a real shot at winning over black voters. Around a quarter of African Americans describe themselves as conservatives. 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. Jordan says Republicans need to make up for lost time.
JORDAN: The Republican Party has done a horrible job of being engaged in the African American community in a very real way. And the Democratic Party has.
PAVIOUR: Jordan thinks Virginia Republicans are on the right path, but their biggest obstacle may be the president. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 4 out of 5 black voters believe Trump is racist.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: There's a real challenge in voting for a party that you perceive as hostile to your rights and to your community.
PAVIOUR: Leah Wright Rigueur is a professor at Harvard who's studied the history of black Republicans. After the Civil War, African Americans who could vote often cast their ballot for Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party. That changed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Rigueur says the GOP needs its own transformational policy to win them back.
HARVARD PROFESSOR, AUTHOR: They would need to propose something that is dramatic, larger than life and directly speaks to black communities, issues and concerns in 2019.
PAVIOUR: That resonates with Lamont Bagby, a Democratic lawmaker who heads Virginia's Black Caucus. Earlier this year, he said that to win over black voters, the GOP would need to change its identity.
LAMONT BAGBY: 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. It's because of what their party stands for.
PAVIOUR: Garrison Coward says he doesn't define himself by his party. He thinks his vision of lower taxes and less regulation will resonate. But he says the president doesn't always help his cause.
COWARD: Look - I don't agree with some of his antics on Twitter. I think that some things that he says is just absolutely out of line.
PAVIOUR: Coward says people are tired of what he calls identity politics. He says people want to have hard conversations. But they'll have to talk over Trump, whose presence is larger and louder than just about anyone else.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.