Republican John Cox Survived California's Wild Primary by Running a Quietly Intriguing Campaign

Could a Republican win a governors' race in deep blue California? Here's how John Cox plans to try, now that he's earned the shot.


Looking at the dismal political landscape for Republicans in California these days, I almost forgot that when I moved to Orange County from Ohio, the state actually had a healthy number of Republicans holding statewide office. In 1998, Pete Wilson was governor, Bill Jones was secretary of state, Matt Fong was treasurer, Dan Lungren was attorney general and Chuck Quackenbush was insurance commissioner. Conservative icon Tom McClintock, now a congressman, had come within a hair of becoming the state's controller.

These days, it's accepted wisdom that—after 20 years of political and demographic changes—California is a one-party state and that Republicans can do well only in a narrowing group of legislative and local races. New figures show that Republicans now trail independents in the registration game, which has got to hurt the party's image. And, most strikingly, the GOP has a tough time fielding top-tier candidates to run for the plum governor's spot.

California did have a two-term Republican governor named Arnold Schwarzenegger, who preceded Jerry Brown's return to power in 2011. That was fewer than eight years ago, although Schwarzenegger was an outlier—a moderate Republican movie star who won a free-for-all election after a bizarre recall of a sitting governor. Even then, however, it was already an accepted belief that the GOP needed big-name celebrity candidates to have a shot any more.

This year, ironically, it's a buttoned-down, little-known businessman named John Cox who is shaking up the race in a relatively new "top two" system that had everyone fighting for the second spot. (The top two vote-getters in the June primary face off in the November general election, regardless of their party affiliation.) Cox surged past former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and on Tuesday and gained the right to challenge Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, despite massive spending on attack ads by a Super PAC funded by Villaraigosa backers. Newsom had 33 percent of the vote, with Cox gaining 26 percent. Villaraigosa was in third with less than 14 percent.

No doubt, Cox's campaign was bolstered by a recent endorsement from Donald Trump, which knocked the pro-Trump cheerleader Assemblyman Travis Allen off his game. Cox emailed me after I recently dismissed the idea that any Republican had a hope of winning the governorship this year. He agreed to an interview to tackle that and other campaign questions. My main query: What's his plan for winning, not just in June but November?

Cox went through a long discussion of the state's problems with the focus on the economy. He has traveled around the state and finds many people who are struggling with the high cost of gasoline, rent and other basics—driven up by Democratic tax and regulatory policies. Working-class people are getting "crushed," he said, because of special-interest control of Sacramento—"people who use their money to put their thumb on the scale for their benefit."

Cox said he actually agrees with Newsom about the state's troubling level of inequality, but instead of promoting a more powerful state government and higher taxes to hand out subsidies in dribs and drabs, Cox wants to jump-start job creation and entrepreneurial opportunities. He blames the Democratic leadership for chasing away so many people from such a wonderful state.

That's a standard Republican theme, albeit a strong one. California has some of the nation's wealthiest communities, but it also has the nation's highest poverty rate using the Census Bureau's cost-of-living-adjusted measure. California's high rate of taxation and regulation depresses business growth and—most significantly, perhaps—drives up the cost of housing. Many people are fleeing for Texas and elsewhere primarily because of unaffordable housing prices.

But Cox then throws in a bit of Trumpism with his focus on draining Sacramento's swamp by battling what he describes as a culture of cronyism. That builds on his previous forays into California politics, including a push for a neighborhood Legislature that would counterintuitively increase the number of representatives in an effort to improve representation and reduce the power of special interests.

Despite such populism, Cox is willing to be heterodox. On immigration, he is strongly opposed to the sanctuary state law, but describes himself as pro-immigration. He wants a legal and orderly system—and not a bureaucratic nightmare that takes five or 10 years for someone to immigrate properly. He said we need people of all skill levels—provided they want to be Americans. That's not a surprise given that he emulates political thinkers in the pro-growth, opportunity-oriented Jack Kemp mold.

Certainly, Cox wasn't as colorful as Allen. "Anybody with a loud voice can sit there and rev up a crowd by screaming things that they agree with so they applaud," Cox told me. Instead, he's focused on the details of policy, on pitching his business experience and in trying to make his case to voters across the state. Wouldn't it be ironic if the most intriguing candidacy in this election cycle—and the most successful GOP statewide candidate in a while—is the one that's focused more on policy than rhetoric?

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is a Sacramento-based writer. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at

NEXT: Congressional Republicans Say They Just Cut $15 Billion in Spending. It's Actually Only $1.1 Billion.

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  1. The first primary in ages where I decided to not vote. I used to vote primarily because I could pick small parties and give them a boost in avoiding the requirement for petition signatures to get on the ballot). I also sorta hoped it would boost my creds when writing letters to politicians, but I got back too many “Thank you for supporting our adopt-a-dolphin initiative” letters to care. So this year, for the first time, I simply didn’t bother reading teh election guide or sending in the absentee ballot, and I se eno reason to change for the November general election.

    And this happens. Is it an omen that I should continue to not vote?

    1. Well, you r vote doesn’t matter, so thanks for not using fossil fuel to get to the polls.

      1. I used fossil fuel to pick up the absentee ballot from the post office, and to take it back. Does that count? See, now I’m saving half that. Good boy, here’s a cookie.

  2. “California has some of the nation’s wealthiest communities, but it also has the nation’s highest poverty rate using the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-adjusted measure.”

    Back in olden times the aristocrats used to complain of the difficulty of finding help and governesses when power shifted from landed wealth to cities and industry. California aristocrats have found a solution to this problem; open the border, enact so many regulations it is impossible to build new housing, and chase the middle class away.

  3. California’s high rate of taxation and regulation depresses business growth and?most significantly, perhaps?drives up the cost of housing. Many people are fleeing for Texas and elsewhere primarily because of unaffordable housing prices.

    High rate of taxation is NOT driving up the cost of housing in CA. The reverse actually. Prop13 beneficiaries are effectively tax-exempt properties – and even more recent buyers are paying less in prop taxes than most states. Anyone selling property in CA to buy in TX will double or triple that prop tax burden (or multiples more than that if they are a Prop13 long-time owner).

    Yeah – shifting that tax burden to other areas like income/sales/etc is harming CA. But it ain’t because of the usual narrative. Rather it is because land IS fucking different – and one of the ways it is different is how land prices respond to taxation – and CA chose a long time ago to become a land rentier/speculation economy. And that choice is finally ‘working’ exactly as one should expect.

    1. Right. Home prices increase when property taxes decrease. The monthly payment will be the same or similar. Actually, the home prices tend to overcompensate. In the DC area it’s really noticeable. Home prices are highest in DC for various reasons, but one reason is because property taxes are so ridiculously low, almost negligible in some cases. Next is Northern Virginia, where property taxes are about double what they are in DC and houses are a bit less, but not by much. Then you have Montgomery County, where home prices are a little lower and property taxes are relatively high, about 50% higher than in NoVa. Then come Prince George’s County with even higher property taxes, about 10% higher than MoCo and slightly lower home prices. It’s also the least nice area of them all with the worst public schools (except for DC) and the highest crime rates (except for DC). Those things keep home prices down, but also the high property taxes help keep a lid on home prices to some extent.

      1. Home prices increase when property taxes decrease. The monthly payment will be the same or similar.

        The other reason is because land taxation doesn’t affect supply as much when taxes increase or decrease. At the extreme (just to illustrate the point):
        100% tax on labor eliminates most supply of labor. Not worth it to work. Reduce taxes and it creates supply.
        100% tax on capital eliminates supply of savings/capital. Not worth it to save/invest so capital flees. Reduce taxes and it creates supply.
        100% tax on land doesn’t change supply at all. Land is still there and doesn’t move or go on strike. It may change ownership but not supply. Reduce taxes and no change in supply. CA is same size it was when Prop13 passed.

        A prop tax is basically a combo of tax on fixed capital and tax on land. In theory, to produce the same rate of tax on both. In practice, the more exemptions/differentials/etc in prop tax system, the higher the effective tax on capital and the lower the effective tax on land. And CA and NYC are the home of radically uneven prop taxes from one neighbor to the next.

    2. Many of the Prop 13 beneficiaries have already sold and left Commifornia.

      1. They may have left – or died – but that doesn’t mean they sold. Propositions 58 (1986) and 193 (1996) effectively locked the Prop13 assessments in stone for the children/grandchildren (and their children/grandchildren – and theirs too forever) of the original owners at the time of Prop13.

        Chances are if they did move/die, it was far more profitable for them or heirs to remortgage the CA property, keep it from being ‘developed’ into something else by someone else, and use the proceeds of that to buy in their new place. And over time, it will become increasingly profitable to keep that land in its original use and keep it from being ‘developed’. The dead own CA now – and they are very grateful for that.

        You can see the prop tax differential on the images here of LA County overall and of one zip code in LA.

  4. I like this guy. He’s doomed of course, but i like him.

    1. He’s got the balls to stand up in a very blue state.

      Unfortunately for California lefties, most of that state is red. The mountains and inland regions.

  5. On immigration, he is strongly opposed to the sanctuary state law, but describes himself as pro-immigration. He wants a legal and orderly system?and not a bureaucratic nightmare that takes five or 10 years for someone to immigrate properly.

    Sounds like a good plan, although the devil will be in the details. I’m not sure how much can be done at the state level though since immigration is a federal concern, but maybe there’s some things that can be done at the state level.

    Instead, he’s focused on the details of policy, on pitching his business experience and in trying to make his case to voters across the state.

    He wants to talk about actual policy and not just bumper sticker slogans and 5 second soundbites? Well, he’s fucked.

  6. The color of the Left is Red. California is a Red state. Stop letting the enemy disassociate themselves from their true bolshevik nature.

  7. Republicans are way off in not seeing crony california as highly vulnerable

    A bit of greening of the GOP message for California and suddenly everybody discovers how much california people really hate these democrat construction company shills

  8. If a calm morning is what you’re after why are you drinking coffee in the first place?

  9. While the attack ads on him “He didn’t vote for Trump—He voted for that OTHER candidate”, strongly suggested he voted for Hillary, I found out pretty late that he actually voted for Gary Johnson. Verrrrry interesting…

    1. I actually liked Travis Allen a bit (only a little bit) better than Cox. They have very similar platforms though and after watching the polls for a few weeks, I became convinced Cox had a better shot of making it on the ballot. I honestly chose to voter strategically in this primary, California won’t survive another Democrat Governor. I feel like this is the last chance to avoid a civil war in my lifetime. California progressives absolutely *will* attempt secession I think and it’ll be much more difficult for them if they’re kept out of the Governors Mansion.

      1. Personally I’m hoping FOR secession or a civil war. It’s really the only way we’re ever going to straighten the USA out again. The cancer must be removed one way or another. Secession is the potentially peaceful way… Otherwise I’m pretty sure we’re gonna have a shooting war on our hands before too long. If so I just hope it still happens when I’m young enough to go commie huntin’!

  10. I’ve been arguing this for over a generation now, to no avail. Just as the socialists nabbed the term “liberal” for their own, and vehemently deny the term “NAZI” is a German portmanteau meaning National Socialist, they insist on labeling their party blue rather than the historic red associated with Marxism all over the world.

    But they’re also the party of deception. The progenitors and defenders of slavery in America, who fling the “racist” epithet at every opportunity. They’re morally bankrupt.

    1. The red/blue thing actually was just the US media randomly assigning colors they changed up every election cycle on TV. After the 2004 (IIRC) election they just settled on red/blue. This MAY have been intentional by the lefties, but I don’t think so. It was just a random thing from all I’ve ever read. They should have flipped the colors though to let the Dems stay true to their socialist/communist roots!

  11. Nice article. California is now a good country for living and for visiting also. Visit for details on play store.

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