California Forum

What John Cox’s top-two win means – and what it doesn’t

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, right, speaks during a Republican election party Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in San Diego. With their daughter, Julianne, between them, his wife Sarah Cox blows him a kiss. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, right, speaks during a Republican election party Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in San Diego. With their daughter, Julianne, between them, his wife Sarah Cox blows him a kiss. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) AP

Now it’s a proper race.

Republican John Cox finished second in Tuesday’s top-two gubernatorial primary. He’ll face Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in November’s general election to see who will succeed Gov. Jerry Brown. The odds of a Cox victory are long – but then again, Hillary Clinton was a mortal lock to win the presidency, too.

Cox has an opportunity to do with the state Republican Party what Trump has attempted fitfully to do with the GOP nationwide: Toss the old checklist, force Democrats to answer for their failures, slay old pieties, and disrupt the establishment from top to bottom.

The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Alert headline from Wednesday morning encapsulates how Newsom and the Democrats will want to shape the campaign narrative in the months ahead: “Trump-backed Republican faces Newsom in California’s governor race.”

That “Trump-backed” bit is decidedly double-edged, and the line of attack is perfectly predictable. In this State of Resistance, the president is the Devil – racist, sexist, bigoted, unkind to puppies and kittens … name it. Therefore, Cox will be tarred as the Devil’s Apprentice. Newsom has already called him a “footsoldier” in Trump’s “war on California.” (Good Lord, who writes his stuff?)

But it isn’t so simple.

Cox got the president’s endorsement, to the chagrin of his Republican rival, Assemblyman Travis Allen. Allen might have talked like Trump, but the Orange County lawmaker lacked the one thing the president tends to look for before giving his nod: a clear path to victory.

Remember, Cox didn’t even vote for the president in 2016. He voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian. Nevertheless, Trump tweeted his congratulations Wednesday. “He can win,” the president wrote.

Cox could win because he offers voters a genuine choice for once.

Look, if you happen to live on the coast and you have a six-figure-income job in tech or banking or law, odds are life is sweet and Newsom is your candidate. But if you live anywhere else, you might have noticed all that glitters is not gold in this progressive utopia of ours.

The world’s fifth-largest economy is also one of the most impoverished. Homelessness is rampant and homeownership is increasingly out of reach for lower- and middle-income Californians. Despite a constitutional provision requiring at least 40 percent of the general fund be devoted to K-12 education, California’s students – especially blacks and Latinos – continue to lag in reading and math according to state and federal measures. Property crime is on the rise. Violent crime is following suit, especially in the state’s interior.

Republicans didn’t do that. Progressive policies did. The essential question of this election is: Will Californians ratify the status quo, or will they vote for some change?

Note I didn’t write “fundamental change” or “radical change.” A governor is not a king. A Republican governor in a Democratic state has to know his limitations. He can’t do everything.

Does Cox’s top-two finish tell us anything meaningful about Republican prospects in the Golden State more broadly? Not really. Not yet.

A large part of the problem with California’s GOP is the tendency on the part of its more conservative candidates to sing from a 30-year-old hymnal. But the remedy isn’t to become more like the Democrats. That’s essentially the prescription on offer from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his quirky crew of disaffected “moderates” at New Way California.

No, what’s needed here, now more than ever, is a large dose of political heresy. And that requires embracing politics with gusto – and showing voters why that matters.

Cox has an opportunity to do with the state Republican Party what Trump has attempted fitfully to do with the GOP nationwide: toss the old checklist, force Democrats to answer for their failures, slay old pieties, and disrupt the establishment from top to bottom.

The good news is, California Democrats have a very old checklist of their own, weighed down by a noxious form of identity politics wholly divorced from the people they claim to serve. Now let’s get on with it.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He can be contacted at ben@amgreatness.com or on Twitter @benboychuk.

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