Update: Republican John Cox came in second in the Tuesday California primary, setting up a general election November contest with Democrat Gavin Newsom.
WASHINGTON — When I was in Los Angeles this month, I was jolted when I saw that John Cox was the leading Republican contender for governor in the June 5 California primary, and President Donald Trump was backing him.
Was that the John Cox I knew, a millionaire attorney and sometime conservative radio show host who tried but never got any significant traction in state and local Illinois Republican politics?
Was that the John Cox who, in the 2000 GOP primary for a 10th Congressional District seat in the northern Chicago suburbs, came in fifth in an 11-person field?
Was that the John Cox who in the 2002 Illinois GOP Senate primary ran third?
Was that the John Cox who lost for Cook County Recorder of Deeds in November 2004, becoming the nominee because he had no primary challenger?
Was that the John Cox who in 2006 launched a 2008 self-funded presidential bid — quixotic to say the least — dropping out early?
Polls show Cox may clinch the number two spot in the primary, putting him on the November ballot for governor.
In California, unlike in Illinois, the top two contenders face-off in November, no matter the party.
Born and raised in Chicago, Cox now lives near San Diego, buying a house in California and moving there full time in 2011, his spokesman, Matt Shupe, told me.
I asked former Republican and now independent political analyst Dan Schnur, who teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, to brief me on Cox and California.
Cox has “never been taken very seriously by the leading Republicans here,” Schnur said.
No major Republican jumped in the race and now Cox is “one of only two (GOP) candidates for governor and because we have a ‘top two’ primary out here, there is a growing belief among GOP types that if there isn’t a Republican on the general election ballot this November, the turnout in the key congressional races will suffer.”
The frontrunner in all surveys is Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is battling Cox over second place.
In heavily Democratic California, Cox, who so far has put about $4 million of his money into his campaign, has zero chance of winning in November.
There are several political forces at work providing Cox the platform and big-time attention he lacked in his previous bids in Illinois.
If Cox comes in second next week, Newsom is all but elected governor. Newsom is rooting for a GOP opponent in November.
Republicans think they need Cox to keep the House of Representatives in GOP control so they are trying to diminish his GOP rival, state assemblyman Travis Allen to consolidate GOP votes.
Democrats need 24 seats to win back the chamber.
Seven California House seats held by Republicans are seen as vulnerable because Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican likely to be the next Speaker if the GOP keeps the House, is seen as the force behind the Trump boost.
Trump said in a May 28 Tweet, Cox is “a really good and highly competent man. He’ll Make California Great Again!”
The California Senate race will have two Democrats on the November ballot. Without Cox, California Republicans head to November with Democrats only running for the two top state spots.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy told me Trump and McCarthy “probably” made the calculation to bolster Cox because it is “better to have one R and one D at the top of the ticket.
Said Murphy, “The GOP fear is, if there no are Republicans running for governor or senator, it will be hard to turn out GOP votes.”
UPDATE: Newsrom and Cox led a poll released Thursday by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley IGS survey of likely voters put Newsom at 33 percent; Cox at 20 percent; Villaraigosa at 13 percent and Allen at 12 percent.