California Republicans bet the House on unknown businessman

 In Politics

LOS ANGELES — When President Donald Trump threw his endorsement Friday to John Cox, a little-known businessman running for California governor, he also gave House Republicans a potentially significant lift in their effort to maintain control of Congress.

Republicans in this heavily Democratic state long ago abandoned almost any hope of winning the governorship, but getting shut out in California’s primary — where the top two finishers advance, regardless of party — could depress turnout and lead to devastating losses in House races statewide. In a warning to Republicans in April, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote that Cox advancing to the November ballot “will be vital for keeping the Republican majority.”

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Trump’s endorsement of Cox, a wealthy businessman who previously ran unsuccessfully for House and Senate seats in Illinois and, briefly, for president in 2008, was the culmination of weeks of effort by Republican leadership, including endorsements from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The president’s intervention is considered especially significant as Cox failed to secure the California Republican Party’s endorsement, splitting activists’ support at the state party’s convention this month with another Republican, state Assemblyman Travis Allen.

“Tell me what in the universe is better for a Republican in a primary than a presidential tweet,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. “Donald Trump is the most popular Republican in California among Republicans.”

In recent polls, Cox is running far behind California’s Democratic lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, but he is locked in a tight race with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for second place — and a spot on the November ballot.

Newsom would almost certainly trounce Cox in a general election. Republican registration in California has fallen to just more than 25 percent statewide, and no Republican holds statewide office. But for House Republicans defending several congressional seats that could be decided on the margins, getting Cox on the ballot would be a victory.

“The top two [primary] is obviously a big concern for Republicans going into November,” said Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state.

He predicts House Republicans “would suffer at least a couple of percentage point hit” in competitive races without a Republican candidate for governor to drive turnout at the top of the ticket.

“And when you have margins that are fragile as they are right now,” Pyers said, “that could be bad.”

Dave Gilliard, a strategist for several Republicans running in contested House races in California, said, “Certainly conventional wisdom is that if your party doesn’t have a candidate at the top of the ballot, it does suppress turnout … I don’t think anybody would disagree with that.”

Gilliard added, “We’re encouraged John Cox has emerged as somebody who potentially can make the runoff.”

Republican House candidates aren’t doomed if Cox fails to make the ballot. The National Republican Congressional Committee has not directly intervened in the governor’s race, and GOP strategists have pointed to Republicans’ record of winning competitive House seats despite swift headwinds against them statewide. In addition, Republicans have focused heavily on qualifying a November ballot measure to repeal a gas tax increase, an issue they believe will drive turnout.

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