Opinion: Newsom and Trump Both Wanted Cox—and Got Their Wishes

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Republican governor candidate John Cox in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary

It was a pretty unusual election when Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom both wanted the same man to place second in California’s race for governor, and voters gave both their wish this week.

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Trump strongly endorsed San Diego businessman John Cox’s drive to finish second to Newsom in the state’s top-two primary and thus win a spot on the November ballot. Trump and other national GOP leaders believe that having Cox on the ballot will give Republican voters a reason to turn out in November and help the party defend some embattled congressional seats in Southern California.

Pro-Newsom forces fashioned clever ads that denounced Cox as a right-wing Trump acolyte, clearly hoping it would endear Cox to GOP voters.

With Cox as No. 2, rather than Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, Newsom can almost certainly coast to the governorship of a deep-blue state five months hence.

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It was, in effect, an informal alliance of very strange political bedfellows, using Cox as a foil for their own, very different agendas—and it could have national consequences in the continuing battle over those congressional seats.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Democratic strategists became very concerned that they could be frozen out of contention in several of the targeted districts. There were so many Democrats running that, they feared, Republicans could finish 1-2 in the primary and nail down wins.

That was alarming because flipping at least a few seats in California would be critical to Democratic hopes of retaking control of the House this year and making life miserable for Trump, perhaps even launching impeachment proceedings against him.

Belatedly, the Democratic congressional campaign apparatus interceded with big wads of money to knock down Republicans and pump up favored Democrats, and it paid off. Republicans won’t have locks on any of the districts, and there will be conventional Democrat vs. Republican duels in all.

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That said, Republicans showed more strength than expected, given that in 2016 Trump had lost to Hillary Clinton in all of the districts on the target list, and it may still be difficult for Democrats to make big congressional gains in California.

If Democrats pick up only a seat or two—or even gain nothing—in the state and thus fail to win back the House, it would be a huge setback for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s hopes of becoming speaker again and could lead to her ouster as the top Democrat in the House. It would be a big win for another Californian, Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, who is apparently in line to become speaker if the GOP retains control.

Furthermore, if Democrats’ hopes for a “blue wave” in California fall short in November, Pelosi might not be the only victim of a post-election blame game. Newsom, her fellow San Franciscan, already faces some carping for his camp’s clever, if transparent, efforts to help Republican Cox come in second, perhaps sparking a higher Republican voter turnout in November.

Some Democrats see it as me-first selfishness on Newsom’s part, putting his own career above his party’s national standing, even though he portrays himself as a leader of the “resistance” to Trump.


CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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