In summary

In 2018, the San Diego millionaire was the Republican pick for governor. In the 2021 Newsom recall, he is a man without a party. And Cox is just fine with that.

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It’s two days before the California Republican Party is supposed to pick its torchbearer, so the other leading candidates in the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom are busy making phone calls and schmoozing party delegates. 

But John Cox has other plans this Thursday morning: He’s in front of the state Capitol showing off a life-sized board game. “Gavinopoly” — which the candidate explains is meant to illustrate his new tax plan — is only the latest prop in what has become the recall’s most prop-happy campaign. 

Many voters will remember the 1,000-pound bear that Cox, an investment manager and accountant from north San Diego County, chauffeured around on his first statewide bus tour of the recall race. Fewer probably recall the follow-up gimmick: A 8-foot ball of trash

This one — a 12-by-12 foot game board made up of sofa cushion-sized jigsaw puzzle pieces — is a bit easier to manage, his campaign aides all agree. No trailer nor finicky tarp nor wildlife wrangler toting rotisserie chickens required. “​This is definitely the most interesting campaign I’ve worked on,” said campaign manager Bryan Reed.

And not just because of all the visual aids. 

Cox campaign staff set up a giant Monopoly board dubbed “Gavinopoly” in front of the state capitol on Aug. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Cox — the GOP’s standard bearer in the 2018 governor’s race and listed as a Republican on the Sept. 14 recall ballot — is now accusing the party of insider dealing and corruption. 

The millionaire, who is funding his own campaign, said he’s happy to go it alone this time.

“I think a lot of Republicans already know who I am. I mean, I ran in 2018, and I got almost 5 million votes — I think that was a lot of Republicans,” he said, standing in front of the board game and a handful of reporters. “We’re gonna get that message out. I think we’ll be fine.”

‘A name recognition thing’

For Cox it’s a return to form. 

Throughout his many years on the campaign trail — running unsuccessfully for Congress, for U.S. Senate, for president of the United States, for county recorder of deeds back in his native Illinois — Cox has always portrayed himself as an outsider. As he’s said for years, including six times at the televised recall debate last week, he’s a “businessman” — not a “career politician,” a “celebrity” or an “insider” — and therefore he’s uniquely resistant to the sleaze and corruption that he says defines policymaking. 

That line seemed a little discordant in 2018 when Cox was running as the GOP’s preferred candidate for governor, backed by the entire party’s state congressional delegation and then-President Donald Trump. 

But three years later, Cox is back in his comfort zone — on the outside looking in.

Cox’s math is about right. Facing off against Newsom in the last governor’s race, he won 4.7 million votes. 

But that number skips over another one that his critics in the party often point to: He lost by 24 percentage points, a larger defeat than any GOP gubernatorial candidate in California since 1950. 

In a ruling last week Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl rubbed in that fact. The campaign defending Newsom will be allowed to argue in the official state voter guide that the effort is an abuse of the state’s recall laws, she wrote, precisely because Cox’s defeat was so lopsided.

“The recall is being held less than three years after a sizeable majority of California voters elected Newsom Governor,” Earl wrote. “Out of over 12.4 million votes cast in the 2018 gubematorial election…approximately 4.7 million (or just 38 percent) voted for Republican challenger John Cox.”

And yet under the odd — and critics say anti-democratic — rules that govern California’s recall elections, if Cox won 38% of the vote this time, he could easily glide into the governor’s office. That’s because if a majority of voters opt to fire Newsom on the first question on the ballot, whichever replacement candidate gets the most votes on the second question will win — no matter how small a sliver of the vote they get. 

Hence the bear, said Fred Davis, a communications consultant to Cox with a long history of gonzo campaign tactics

“Let’s just say it took some time for John to warm up to it,” Davis said, who said he sold the candidate on the hairy mascot, but takes no credit for the trash ball or “Gavinopoly.”

“It’s a long shot that Gavin will get booted, but if he gets the boot, this will be the best chance of winning you’ve ever had in your life,” he said, recounting his conversation with Cox in the early months of the campaign. “You could win with a small percentage of the vote. And that’s going to be a name recognition thing” — recognition that a recent statewide race and a road trip with a Kodiak can buy, no matter what GOP leaders think about your campaign.

“I gotta tell you, the bear and the ball and the game are getting to the average person, and that’s a good thing.”

republican recall candidate john cox

The candidate seems to have come around to that idea, even if he bristles at the notion that he’s dealing in gimmicks. For Cox, standing in front of the giant faux-Monopoly board to promote his tax cut plan, this is not a game. 

“My plan on homelessness was very lengthy. I’ve authored countless op-eds on water, electricity, housing, education,” he said outside the Capitol last week. “But I gotta tell you, the bear and the ball and the game are getting to the average person, and that’s a good thing.”

At first, the campaign’s internal polling numbers did look promising, Davis said. “Then somebody got in the race that was bigger than a 1,000-pound grizzly bear.”

That would be Larry Elder. 

Elder is a longtime conservative radio host and commentator who boasts a ready-made fan base among recall-backers and who only got on the ballot at the last minute after winning a legal battle over a requirement that candidates submit their tax returns. 

While early polling showed Cox neck-and-neck with former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, both are now between 3 and 10 percentage points behind the GOP base’s new favorite. 

“Then somebody got in the race that was bigger than a 1,000-pound grizzly bear.”

fred davis, a consultant to the john cox campaign

Elder’s candidacy has upended the calculus behind Cox’s campaign, said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political science professor.

“Republican voters don’t like career politicians so there’s a certain logic to (Cox’s) position” of campaigning as an outsider, he said. “But now there’s somebody in the race who is even more prominently an outsider than he is.”

Behind the break-up

In the meantime, Cox has burned many of the bridges he constructed just three years ago.

On Saturday, the state party’s delegates voted against endorsing any candidate. That was widely expected. More remarkable is that Cox, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate, wasn’t even in the running.

Under the party rules, any of the 1,500 delegates were allowed to nominate as many candidates as they wished for a possible endorsement. Candidates who received at least 200 votes were up for consideration. Four made the cut: Elder, Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Rocklin and former Sacramento-area member of Congress Doug Ose.

Cox came in fifth with 131 votes. Only two voted for Cox alone. Both were paid consultants of the campaign. 

Cox insisted that he “didn’t lobby” any of the delegates or ask any of his supporters to back him. 

Republican recall candidate John Cox holds a press conference at the state Capitol on Aug. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

“The Republican Party should not endorse anybody, and we should be united. We shouldn’t enter a divisive fight over endorsements,” he said before the vote. “I felt the whole process was stilted by a few people that were trying to get a particular candidate in there.”

And yes, he meant Faulconer. “The establishment candidate, the politician,” he said when asked to clarify.

Cox has been going after his fellow San Diego Republican since day one.

Cox’s first ad, in February, was called “Gavin Faulconer,” a joint attack that equated the former mayor’s alleged lack of integrity and corruption with Newsom’s. It dropped when Faulconer was being heralded by some within the party and the state’s business community as the GOP’s best hope for toppling Newsom. Since then, Faulconer has won the endorsement of most GOP state legislators and has raised the most from big donors

Cox, meanwhile, has outraised the rest of the replacement field so far, but only because he’s donated more than $9 million to his own campaign. 

Sacramento County GOP Chairperson Betsy Mahan said she saw something personal in Cox’s broadside against Faulconer.

Cox “certainly had high hopes that he was going to come back and reassume the role to be the Republican candidate to challenge Newsom and I think he was surprised that others stepped up,” she said. 

In 2018, Cox “worked very hard, he was a good candidate,” she added. “But it’s pretty obvious that it’s time to consider someone else.”

Other party leaders have been less sympathetic.

“John Cox led the California Republican Party to its most disastrous statewide election result in California history,” U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego County wrote to supporters last month. Issa went on to list a dozen political failures and call Cox “incompetent” and “erratic.” 

The missive was nominally an endorsement of Faulconer, but it doubled as an usually public torching of the party’s former gubernatorial candidate. 

“It’s pretty obvious that it’s time to consider someone else.”

Sacramento County GOP Chairperson Betsy Mahan

Tensions flared again late last month. When news broke that party insiders were toying with the idea of lowering the threshold needed to endorse a candidate from 60% of the delegates to a mere 50%, Cox blasted them on Twitter. “The insiders at California Republican Party are now no better than the Democrats,” he said, accusing the party of trying to grease the skids for Faulconer. 

The next day, he parked himself in front of the party’s Sacramento headquarters to hold a protest press conference.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents California at the Republican National Committee and is one of the state’s most prolific conservative litigants, was one of the party heavyweights who pushed for the new endorsement process. 

She dismissed Cox’s complaints. “My mother taught me about sour grapes when I was a child, and I think that’s what this is,” she said. “Not qualifying to even compete for the party’s nomination should be a sign to somebody.”

Former California GOP Chairperson Ron Nehring, another Faulconer supporter, was more direct. Cox’s protest “is code for @Kevin_Faulconer is kicking my ass and I can’t win the support of @cagop delegates so I’m going to crap on the entire party,” he tweeted.

But Faulconer didn’t win the endorsement, either. No one did. Of all the nominating votes cast by delegates, the clear winner was neither insider Faulconer nor self-described outsider Cox. It was the biggest wild card in the recall — Elder.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...