LOS ANGELES — Republican John Cox thinks high taxes, a high cost of living and a growing housing crisis give him an opening to take on Democrat Gavin Newsom in the fight to be California's next governor.
But he faces a tough slog convincing voters that they should cast their lot with a Republican in a state where the party's support has eroded and Democrats routinely win every statewide election.
President Donald Trump's tweeted endorsement helped Cox unify Republicans and get through Tuesday's primary. But it could weight him down as he reaches out to independent voters.
"The idea that somehow wrapping yourself in the cloak of Donald Trump is going to help you win in California, I'm trying to be diplomatic here, it's peculiar at best," said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who opposes Trump and worked on Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign for governor. He said he'll watch how the race unfolds before deciding whether to vote for Cox in November.
Newsom, the lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor, finished first in Tuesday's primary with a third of the vote, followed by Cox at 26 percent. Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor, was a distant third at 13 percent. Because of California's "jungle primary," candidates from all parties appear together on the ballot and the top two finishers advance to a runoff in November.
Trump tweeted his congratulations and expressed optimism: "Great night for Republicans! Congratulations to John Cox on a really big number in California. He can win."
Newsom quickly responded with a tweet of his own: "Please come campaign for him as much as possible."
He wasted no time presenting Cox as Trump's man in California, where the president was outpolled by 3.4 million votes in the 2016 election. He sought to tie Cox to Trump policies that are unpopular with a wide swath of the state electorate — from offshore drilling to tougher immigration enforcement.
"I'm arguing for something very different. This is going to be a really easy race to explain to folks," Newsom told reporters at San Francisco's Ferry Building, where a crowd of about 30 supporters and fans trailed him as he meandered down the hall. He greeted and took photos with people, and stopped at a coffee shop the day after the primary.
Cox, a millionaire businessman from San Diego and perennial candidate, is positioning himself as an outsider with the business savvy to confront California's high cost of living. He's pledged to reduce barriers to housing construction and lower taxes, while challenging what he characterizes as the corrupt influence of special interests in Sacramento.
"We are going to take this state and we are going to make it livable and affordable," he said Wednesday on Fox Business Network.
"If John Cox is successful at presenting himself as a positive alternative, particularly on issues related to the economy, affordability and crime, I think those are prime opportunities right now," said Ron Nehring, a former state GOP chairman who lost to Newsom in the 2014 race for lieutenant governor.
Republicans are always underdogs in statewide contests, Nehring said, but he sees Newsom as vulnerable to the perception that he's elitist and out of touch.
Still, Cox showed no signs of moderating the aggressive tone that generated excitement among conservatives, saying "Gavin Newsom wants to turn this state into Venezuela."
Cox, 62, became wealthy as a lawyer, accountant, wealth manager and investor in the Chicago area. He now owns thousands of apartment units in the Midwest.
In the early 2000s, he ran unsuccessfully for a string of offices in Illinois — U.S. House, twice for the U.S. Senate, and Cook County Recorder of Deeds, a job he wanted to see eliminated. He also ran for Illinois GOP chairman.
He bought his house in Rancho Santa Fe, outside San Diego, in 2007 and moved there full-time in 2011, according to spokesman Matt Shupe.
He's a strong supporter of a ballot initiative that would repeal recent increases in gasoline and diesel taxes, which is likely to qualify for the November ballot. The state GOP sees it as way to get more Republicans to the polls.
On Tuesday, a Republican-backed effort to recall state Sen. Josh Newman was successful. The Orange County Democrat was targeted for supporting the gas tax hike.
Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic political consultant who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, was skeptical that Cox could use the prospect of repealing the gas tax to propel himself to victory.
"Voters can do that on their own," Shrum said of voting to repeal the tax. "They don't need to vote for him to do it."
Howie Wynn, a 71-year-old Huntington Beach resident and member of the Republican National Committee, said he didn't vote for Cox on Tuesday but would in November.
"After yesterday I'm more encouraged than I was before. Still, I don't think he has a chance," he said. "This is a Democratic state."