President Donald Trump has endorsed Republican businessman John Cox for California governor.
"California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man — he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had," Trump wrote Friday on Twitter. "I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again!"
The president's backing could be critical for Cox as he tries to consolidate GOP voters ahead of the June primary. Only the top two candidates will advance to a runoff, and Cox is locked in a tight battle with fellow Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen for second place in the gubernatorial race. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor, is the frontrunner in polls.
Allen has strong support among the party's conservative wing, and he has relentlessly criticized Cox for voting for libertarian Gary Johnson over Trump in the 2016 presidential election, an argument that has resonated with his most ardent fans. Cox has since expressed regret for that decision.
"I am honored and deeply grateful to my President and I am looking forward to working with him to make California great again," Cox said in a statement. "Like the President, I'm a businessman who knows how to get things done. We're going to secure the border, empower California small businesses, lower taxes, and make our state affordable for everyone."
Shortly after the announcement, Allen tweeted: "'CALIFORNIANS DESERVE A GREAT GOVERNOR' One who actually VOTED for President @realDonaldTrump."
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the endorsement will "almost certainly" shift some votes from Allen to Cox, strengthening Cox's chances of making the top two considerably.
But he is still vulnerable, Pitney said, to low name recognition statewide and a deluge of independent spending for Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa. A committee organized by the charter schools association has raised more than $17 million so far from billionaires including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
Being tied to Trump, who is deeply unpopular in California, will also likely become a liability if Cox makes the runoff and has to appeal more broadly to the state's heavily Democratic electorate.
"His chances of becoming governor are roughly equivalent to my chances of becoming pope," Pitney said.
Newsom was already attacking Cox on social media Friday. He uploaded an animated video to Facebook calling Cox a "protégé" of Trump's who "spews the same hateful rhetoric as his role model."
"No surprise you're endorsing a candidate in your own image: one who attacks immigrants while opposing common sense gun laws and equal rights," Newsom wrote on Twitter. "Time & time again, the people of California have rejected your brand of hate. The people of California will reject @TheRealJohnHCox too."
Pitney said the endorsement is really about ensuring that a Republican candidate makes it to the general election.
The party is facing a potentially catastrophic scenario in which it has no standard-bearer at the top of the ticket in November, depressing enthusiasm among conservative voters. National Democrats are targeting seven GOP districts in California this year in their bid to take back control of Congress.
"It's all about getting somebody on the ballot to keep Republican turnout at least at normal levels, and that might help them salvage some House seats," Pitney said. "Given the tribal times we live in, Republicans will get behind a Trump candidate regardless of his record."