Averting concerns of a Republican shutout at the top of the ticket, GOP businessman John Cox finished second in the California gubernatorial primary Tuesday night. He will face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in November for the opportunity to lead the largest state in the country.
This is already Cox's most successful campaign in two decades of trying to break into politics. He previously launched half a dozen failed bids for office in Illinois, where he grew up and began his career as an attorney.
But he will face an uphill battle in the coming months against Newsom, who has vastly outraised Cox in liberal California. Last week, the Secretary of State reported that Republican registration has for the first time fallen behind the number of voters with no party preference.
In an interview, Cox said he would win the governorship by telling "the truth about the mismanagement of this state" under its Democratic leaders, including Newsom.
"Frankly, there's a lot of Democrats that are going to vote for me because they're disgusted with the cost of housing, they're disgusted with the homeless population, they're disgusted with the state of the roads," he said.
His top issue for the general election, Cox added, will be a repeal of an unpopular gas tax increase passed by Democrats last year. He slammed Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers for passing the cost of fixing roads onto taxpayers instead of doing the "hard work" of finding efficiencies within the government bureaucracy.
Republicans successfully used the tax to recall a Democratic state senator on Tuesday, and they are attempting to qualify a repeal initiative for the November ballot.
Cox last month received the endorsement of President Donald Trump, who tweeted, "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."
In the final weeks of the campaign, Cox used the endorsement to unify Republicans behind his candidacy. But it could become a liability in November as he tries to win the votes of Democrats and independents, who have overwhelmingly negative views of Trump in California.
Newsom on Tuesday was already tying Cox to the president, calling him a "foot soldier" in Trump's "war in California."
Cox dismissed those comments as "classic political misdirection" and accused Newsom of trying to avoid accountability for California's problems. He also said he would welcome Trump to campaign in California this fall.
"I would be happy to have him come," Cox said.
Cox has a long history of failed political campaigns: He ran for a suburban Chicago House seat in 2000 and the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004 but never made it out of the primary. He lost a 2004 race for Cook County Record of Deeds and the Illinois Republican Party chairmanship in 2005. The following year, he announced his candidacy for president but dropped out early.
Since moving to California in 2011, Cox has reinvented himself as a crusader against what he considers the legal "corruption" of money's influence on the political process.
He has tried unsuccessfully multiple times to qualify an initiative that would expand the California Legislature a hundred-fold by adding neighborhood-level representatives in each Senate and Assembly district. With constituencies of only a few thousand people to reach, he argues, candidates would spend less time soliciting donations and would be less indebted to interest groups.
He also flirted with another ballot measure concept that would have required lawmakers to wear badges with the logos of their top campaign contributors.
The former proposal was a central part of Cox's campaign when he announced his candidacy for governor in March 2017. He also touted his business credentials, promising to improve the state's financial stability and create a more welcoming business climate.
He has since moved to the right to stave off a challenge from conservative Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, who positioned himself as a Trump-ian savior to California.
Cox's rhetoric now centers on reversing the controversial "sanctuary state" law, limiting California law enforcement's ability to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and the gas tax repeal, both issues that have also propelled Allen's campaign.
Allen, who finished fourth in the gubernatorial primary, has yet to say whether he will endorse his Republican rival and ask his supporters to back Cox in November. He could not be reached Tuesday night for comment.
But his loyal following has challenged Cox at every turn, dismissing him as a carpetbagger and a secret liberal. One of their biggest complaints: Cox did not vote for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Cox, who voted for libertarian Gary Johnson, has since expressed regret for that decision. At a gubernatorial debate last month, he said, "I wasn't sure he's a conservative. I am now; he's a conservative."