Election night for a political operative is kind of like prom for a popular kid. It’s long-anticipated, surely plenty angsted over, and all about how things will turn out with the One. Right?
For most, sure, but for Republican Party star Phil Cox, things have historically been slightly more polyamorous. Take 2014: Four years of his life had gone into that race after “razor thin” margins in 2010. In the war room, full of blank maps with red and blue markers, computers pinging everywhere, Cox had his attention spread thin, across some dozen nerve-wracking races. He can rattle them all off, traversing the political map in an instant: Sam Brownback in Kansas, Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine. Cox is the erstwhile executive director of the Republican Governors Association, meaning he was the puppeteer behind so many of those races — the guy getting the money (they raised $250 million in 2014), strategizing, executing and ripping hair out on occasion.
But now, with under a year separating him from those gubernatorial days, Cox has picked his man for the 2016 presidential race. The guy: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose super PAC Cox heads up. Christie, though far from the front-runner in a crowded Republican race (pulling in just 4 percent of the vote in a late July Monmouth poll of New Hampshire voters), is a comfortably national figure, making Cox a comfortably prominent operative. Proving oneself under a governor — especially since they, historically, make strong candidates, says John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers — could be a strong stepping stone to the top. And Cox will be counted a front-runner in his party even without Christie, says Kevin Gentry, vice president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, who’s known Cox for years. After all, he’s got the hookup with just about every conservative in the field. “Whoever the Republican nominee is next year,” Gentry says meaningfully, would be “well-served to have him in a key role.”
OZY caught up with Cox over beers at Bobby Van’s in D.C.; these days he’s doing double duty as Christie’s man and running a state-politics consulting firm, 50-State, along with a Democratic colleague. He missed his flight from Newark the night before and is wearing the same suit as yesterday, he says, though he looks perfectly clean-cut to me. He’s about as dispassionate as an accountant, slow to smile, and describes himself as an “executive” of sorts, a political operative at heart — it’s “fun to run the engine,” but keep him behindthe curtain, thank you very much. The day we meet marks the entrance of yet another Cox connection into the race, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; already there’s Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Perry. A Massachusetts native and longtime athlete — baseball, golf, onetime hockey state champion — Cox is a straight-talker, saying there wasn’t even a question who he’d be toiling for in the primary.
Regardless, he certainly had options. The 2016 race is chock-full of governors, from Republican John Kasich of Ohio to Democrat Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Rutgers’ Weingart, an expert in governors, says state politics trains leaders who “actually govern”; in Cox’s opinion, the state level is where the “kitchen table issues” go down. Here in our D.C. surroundings, he intones glumly, “governance happens through press releases and posturing.” Did he make the right choice, though? We must wonder; a Christie epithet attached to his name might easily limit Cox’s impact — indeed, Weingart adds, operatives hitch their reputations to their candidates.
Christie wasn’t Cox’s first political godfather, though; that title goes to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. The relationship began in 1999, when Cox worked on McDonnell’s Virginia legislature race. They went on to win races for state attorney general and then governor. It was that 2009 race for governor when Cox thought: “Things just got real.” After the victory — a big one, by 17 percentage points — Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett called up. “She said the president wanted to talk.” Cox was on the map.
It was a far cry from his first race in 1997 — it was in Charlottesville, home of his alma mater, the University of Virginia, when he pulled in $1,500 a month and dropped $200 on rent. Scrappy. The race was for a 33-year-old Black conservative running for the Virginia General Assembly, and Cox was soon hooked on state politics. Virginia, with its mix of Southern conservatives and more Arlington- and D.C.-friendly moderates, kept his interest, clearly, and he hasn’t strayed far since. He wasn’t an inevitable conservative, though. Born to a pediatrician father and a liberal, social worker, Brown graduate mother (who ended up voting for Bush in ’04 — “out of loyalty,” he says), Cox marks his political sentience to the early 1980s and the Reagan years. The family’s Hingham, Massachusetts, home had its share of politics but was more a smart, puzzle-doing sort of unit. College had Cox studying history — slightly esoteric for a guy on the deep business and strategy side of the game — and working under famed political scientist Larry Sabato.
He’s no pussyfooter when talking 2016. He figures the right candidate will come from the more center-right bunch — Bush, Kasich, Christie — over the tea party bunch. And in the end, he’s most concerned about “uniting the checks.” That’s the mantra, when it all shakes out. “When it comes to policy,” he hedges, skirting my question about his litmus tests for picking a candidate, “they agree on 90 percent of the issues. So we’ve really got to focus on who can win.”