Retro-Republican from a pre-Trump era: John Cox in second place, for now

John Cox wants to slash the California income tax—abolish it, if possible. Maybe you disagree, but he thinks he can convince you.

“I don’t know why Texas and Florida have no income taxes and we do,” he said, during a recent conversation at CALmatters. “Texas, you know, is growing. Florida is growing. They’re getting tons of businesses and tons of people moving there that we could use here in California.”

As the leading Republican candidate for governor, he’s got other big ideas for reform—bold and seemingly far-fetched in California’s current political climate. He wants to revamp the Legislature by dividing the state into 12,000 neighborhood-sized districts, which he insists will take the corrosive influence of monied special interests out of politics.

He also wants to give education vouchers to private school students and enable more home schooling.

How should the state solve its housing shortage? Cut environmental regulations, he said. What about the plight of mentally ill homeless? Charities and non-profits can and will lead the way, not the state. What book should every Californian read? No surprise there: “Free to Choose” by the libertarian economist, Milton Friedman.

Cox hails from a school of conservatism, marked by a bright-eyed confidence in the power of unregulated markets to lift all boats, that almost feels like a throwback in the Trump era.

In fact, Cox didn’t support the president in 2016, voting instead for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson. That’s a fact that Cox’s Republican competitor in the race, Assemblyman Travis Allen from Huntington Beach, is constantly reminding voters. Cox says he regrets that decision now, but he clearly draws his cues from an older strain of Republican: President Ronald Reagan and the football player-turned-supply side loving congressman Jack Kemp. Cox sat on Kemp’s national steering committee when he ran for president in the late 1980s and often introduces himself on the campaign trail a “Jack Kemp conservative.” The resemblance is clear. Like Kemp, Cox seems earnest, cheerful and he’s unflinchingly optimistic that in the end, the right ideas—namely, his—will win the day.

You’d have to be optimistic to run for governor of California as a conservative Republican in 2018. But Cox—who has lost previous bids to be elected to Congress, the U.S. Senate and the White House—says he’s already planning his first term in Sacramento.

“There’s a lot of mismanagement and a lot of improvements I could make,” he said. “I’m going to have fun turning around this state.”

A Republican hasn’t been elected to statewide office in California since 2006. Registered independents may soon outnumber registered Republicans. The president is historically unpopular and the Democratic base is riled up. But Cox has never been discouraged by long odds. In his native Illinois, he ran for Congress and came in fifth in the Republican primary. Then he ran for Senate in 2002 and 2004, losing twice. In 2008, when he ran for President on a promise to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, he wasn’t even invited to any of the presidential debates.

Now the deep-pocketed businessman is running again, and has done surprisingly well up to now: The most recent polls show Cox in second-place behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But the guy in third place, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, just got a huge political lift—charter school backers intend to pour more than $8 million into his effort to bump off Cox and secure one of the top-two slots that will put him on the November ballot.

Granted, Californians split across six candidates—four Democrats and two Republicans—Cox was able to pull into the number two spot with only 15 percent of the likely vote. Maybe that modest success is due to Cox’s ability to spend more than many of his opponents. Maybe it’s because he’s the conservative in the race who isn’t Allen, a firebrand who has built his campaign around his support of President Trump and his opposition to illegal immigration. Cox has his own explanation.

At the meeting, Cox told a story of how he had struck up a conversation with an airport security guard that morning. After telling him about his plans to cut taxes and regulations, Cox said, he won the TSA agent’s support on the spot. “The woman in front of him in line heard this whole discussion and she said the same thing!” he said. “People just want something to change.”

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