The Slatest

California Republicans Know Trump Can’t Save Them. But They Have a Backup Plan.

SAN DIEGO, CA-MAY 5: California GOP Gubernatorial Candidate John Cox speaks during an election eve party at the U.S. Grant Hotel on  June 5, 2018 in San Diego, California.  Cox, a businessman from Rancho Santa Fe, CA, is the leading Republican candidate for Governor of California(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
California GOP Gubernatorial Candidate John Cox speaks speaks to supporters.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Republican John Cox spoiled an all-Democratic gubernatorial race in California, sneaking by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Tuesday’s “jungle” primary and into the general election against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Donald Trump reacted as one might expect.

Cox’s second-place finish really is good news for Republicans since two blue-on-blue races atop the November ballot would have decreased conservative turnout across the state. And Trump probably does deserve some credit for increasing his name recognition, if nothing else. Cox finished with about 26 percent of the vote in the non-partisan primary, after spending most of the year polling in the teens or below.

But Cox had already climbed into second before the president got involved, and he was also aided by Newsom’s attempt to game the system in Cox’s favor, since it will be much easier for Newsom to beat a Republican in November than it would have been to defeat a fellow Democrat in the deep blue state. Newsom is now expected to coast to victory.

At the very least, Cox will be a high-profile mouthpiece for the real issue that the state GOP hopes will drive turnout in November—a ballot measure to repeal the state’s recent gas tax. “Donald Trump did not create the housing crisis, high taxes, and gas tax that we’re also going to repeal in November,” Cox told reporters on Wednesday. “People have to realize the mismanagement of this state has resulted in our lousy quality of life in a wonderful place to live.”

The referendum is doubling as the GOP’s not-so-secret weapon, and is already proving to be a liability for Democrats. On Tuesday, Republicans successfully recalled state Sen. Josh Newman, a Southern California Democrat who voted last year for the 12-cents-a-gallon bump to pay for road repairs. Republicans hope to similarly weaponize the state’s so-called sanctuary policy, which limits local and state police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. As San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric put it earlier this year: “I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out…with ‘repeal the gas tax’ and ‘oppose the sanctuary state.’ There are other issues as well, but that’s a damn good place to start and have a conversation.”

That’s a strategy with some historical precedent behind it, as CALmatters’ Ben Christopher pointed out last month. Back in 2003, Republicans were able to channel anger over an increase in the state vehicle license fee to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and then replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a decade before that, then-GOP Gov. Pete Wilson used an anti-immigrant ballot initiative (most of which was later overturned by the courts) to help win a second term in 1994 after starting his reelection bid as an underdog.

Republicans are running updated versions of those same plays this year. And while they almost certainly won’t be enough to push Cox to victory, they could prove decisive in down-ballot races that are far more competitive.

Meanwhile, Democrats will be hoping the president keeps tweeting about California, in a year when they would like nothing more than to make the midterms a national referendum on Trump. “It looks like voters will have a real choice this November—between a governor who is going to stand up to Donald Trump and a foot soldier in his war on California,” Newsom told his supporters at his primary night rally as Cox secured the second nomination. He also unveiled a new campaign theme—“Resistance with results” and on Wednesday, responded to Trump’s pro-Cox tweet by daring the president to come to California.

Newsom’s strategy is straightforward. Trump lost the Golden State by nearly 30 points, and the state has since become the spiritual home to the #resistance to his presidency. It’s highly unlikely Trump can help Cox in state where Republicans make up only a quarter of the registered voters. And a presidential visit to California would also risk hurting the GOP’s chances of holding on to a handful of key California congressional districts that Trump lost two years ago and that are central to Democrats plan to retake the House this fall.

Cox, meanwhile, is left to try to walk a fine line with Trump, who he says he did not vote for in 2016 but who he nonetheless defends now. “I’m glad the president supported me. I’m proud of that. I think it helped consolidate the Republican vote,” Cox said on Wednesday, before conceding: “I know his personality and manner are a turnoff.” From there, he pivoted to talking about the gas tax.