Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Mr. Blankenship was not convicted of a felony.
California’s top-two primary might finally produce an interesting statewide race for governor. And President Donald Trump might be a pivotal reason why.
A half-dozen prominent Democrats are vying to take over termed-out Jerry Brown’s office in the June 5 primary. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a comfortable lead, leaving his fellow partisans to compete for runner-up.
In California, unlike all but a handful of other states with partisan primaries, the top-two vote-getters in the primary move on to the general election. In a deep-blue state like this one, that usually means two Democrats square off to fight over who’s more authentically liberal while Republicans get to sulk on the sidelines.
But maybe not this year! The prospect of so many Democrats eating each other alive has given the down-on-its-luck California Republican Party its first decent shot at second-place in quite some time.
As lame as second-place sounds, a Republican reaching the November ballot would be a considerable feat in a year in which the Secretary of State reports that the share of registered GOP voters has sunk to a new low with just 28.55 percent of eligible adults.
Two Republicans are in the running: Assemblyman Travis Allen, a conservative from Huntington Beach, and John Cox, a businessman and transplant from Illinois. According to most polls, Cox is running neck-and-neck with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while Allen is sucking wind in single-digits.
Here’s where Trump comes in. Last week, the president endorsed Cox, tweeting that “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime and lowering taxes,” adding he looks forward to “working with him to Make California Great again!”
Trump’s endorsement angered Allen’s supporters, who insist he’s the true conservative in the race. They say, in so many words, that Cox is a carpetbagger who lost a bunch of high-profile elections in Illinois and, by the way, he’s kind of weird. Cox opposes the death penalty and has some eccentric ideas for reforming the state, including expanding the legislature to 1,200 members.
To which President Trump might reply: So?
Some conservatives – never mind liberals – still haven’t grasped the meaning of Trump’s not-at-all surprising election victory. Ideology matters little if at all. “Principles” – I use the quotes deliberately – will get you so far. In Allen’s case, that appears to be roughly 5 percent and near-certain defeat.
Cox actually has a chance.
Trump tends to avoid long shots. He likes winners.
That doesn’t mean he always picks them. Remember the Alabama Senate special election? Trump endorsed Luther Strange, the interim Senator who also happened to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pick (which was annoying). Strange lost his primary to Judge Roy Moore, who was annihilated in the face of reports that he dated teenage girls in his 30s.
In retrospect, Trump’s initial judgment was right: Strange could have won the race Moore lost in a solidly red state.
Or consider the recent GOP primary in West Virginia. Trump didn’t endorse anyone in the Senate race there. Instead, he urged Republicans not to vote for former coal mine owner Don Blankenship, who in 2016 was sentenced to a year in jail for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.
“Don Blankenship . . . can’t win the General Election in your State . . . No way! Remember Alabama,” the president tweeted.
In the end, Blankenship placed third in a three-person race. Blankenship might have sounded the most “nationalist” or “populist”– that is, “Trump-like”– of the candidates. But in the end only one thing mattered to Trump: Who could beat the Democrat in November and give him one more vote in the Senate?
The same calculus applies in the Golden State.
Allen’s supporters grouse that Cox isn’t much of a Republican. Well, let’s face it: Neither is Trump. He took the conservative checklist, shredded it – and won.
The important thing is Cox could win, too. You’d think California Republicans would like to put one on the board again. Conservatives in particular need to learn there is no consolation in losing for the “right” reasons. Losing is for losers. Trump has shown a way to win.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benboychuk.