Phil Cox is the only left-winger in the country trying to get Republicans elected governor.
From the hockey rink to the campaign trail, Cox has never been the attention-getter. But after managing Republican Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia and now as the new executive director of the Republican Governors Association, Cox’s public profile is only getting bigger.
As a senior in high school, Cox played left wing for the Hingham Harbormen hockey team that won the Massachusetts state championship for the first time in school history.
“There were guys who were better, but I was smart and a good skater,” said Cox, who was named his team’s “Mr. Hustle.” It’s an early example of how he may not be flashy but his hard work behind the scenes has earned him the respect of campaign professionals and candidates along the way.
Cox, 36, grew up about 20 miles south of Boston in Hingham, home to what Eleanor Roosevelt dubbed “the most beautiful Main Street in America.” At a young age, he started watching the party conventions with his mother even though his family wasn’t particularly political.
After high school, it looked like Cox would start on the path toward medical school (following family tradition) or even law school, until he stepped into Larry Sabato’s introduction to politics class.
“He was not that political, I don’t care what he tells you,” the University of Virginia professor remembered in a recent interview. During a lecture that included historic campaign ads, Cox caught the political bug. He also got an A in the class. “I don’t give away A’s,” remembered Sabato, who sent a letter home to mark the achievement.
“He’s a below-the-radar guy,” Sabato said, his observation of Cox and a dozen years of campaigns in the commonwealth. Sabato added, “But don’t underestimate him.”
After graduating from UVA, Cox turned down an offer to work for a large financial firm in New York City to stay in the Charlottesville area and get more involved in politics.
He connected with a young African-American conservative named Paul Harris and ended up as a precinct captain for his 1997 run for state Delegate. Even though Cox’s only previous campaign experience was building coalitions for fraternity elections, Harris entrusted him with the management of his general election campaign.
Cox proved his mettle to Harris in the primary.
“Phil stood out as a young man who was detailed-oriented. That’s what I liked about him,” Harris recalled to Roll Call. “Everyone else wanted to be the next Lee Atwater.”
Cox remembers that campaign as a baptism by fire.
“We didn’t have a consultant so I did everything: organize phone banks and walks, write and produce television ads,” Cox said. “It’s like your internship and residency in one,” Cox added, unable to escape his family’s main occupation.
When Democrats used National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Julian Bond to attack Harris, the GOP nominee’s first instinct was to forcefully fight back. Cox advised against it.
“In the heat of the moment, candidates can easily get off message,” said Harris, who is now an attorney at Ernst & Young. “I’m glad I followed his advice.”
Harris won the general election with 63 percent, capturing the seat once held by Thomas Jefferson and becoming the first black Republican elected Delegate in Virginia since 1891.
It wasn’t the last time Cox guided a candidate through crisis.
In 2009 during the McDonnell campaign, the Washington Post uncovered the GOP nominee’s graduate school thesis that included controversial views on abortion, marriage and the role of women.
Cox knew it was a “potential game changer” and recommended that McDonnell hold an “Arnie Vinick-style” press conference, drawing some political wisdom from that character on television’s “The West Wing.” The day after the story broke, McDonnell held a 90-minute conference call that exhausted reporters’ questions.
“His advice was very sage,” McDonnell told Roll Call. “He was an incredibly steady hand.”
The Republican won the general election by 18 points in a state that President Barack Obama had carried by 7 points a year prior.
“He has the ability to see the big picture, evaluate the ups and downs and ask ‘how does it fit into the voters’ collective memory?’” said McDonnell, the new vice chairman of the RGA.
Cox honed his campaign skills with Tim Phillips, who is now president of Americans for Prosperity. The two men consulted on dozens of races in Virginia and quintupled the number of state chapters of the AFP.
But Cox hasn’t always been on the winning team.
He managed a losing challenge to Rep. Rick Boucher (D) in 1998 but nearly derailed now-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R) political career two years later. Cantor had more money and the support of the retiring Congressman, but he defeated Cox’s candidate by a mere 263 votes in the primary.
In 2001, Cox managed Lt. Gov. John Hager’s (R) unsuccessful gubernatorial run but never lost his dream of helping to elect a governor of Virginia.
“When I decided to run for governor there was no better person than Phil to run my campaign,” said McDonnell, who was impressed with Cox’s work on the Harris campaign and included him as part of his own team soon after. “He was a talented young guy, mature beyond his years.”
After winning the Virginia governorship, McDonnell put Cox in charge of the transition. After the Saturday inauguration, Cox reported for work the following Monday at the RGA.
“I’d never held the national committees in high opinion,” Cox admitted, but after witnessing the critical role the RGA played in the Virginia race, his view started to change.
Cox learned about the inner workings of the committee last year as a political consultant to the RGA, working on races in Florida and Pennsylvania, among others.
Cox has the advantage of seeing the RGA work from the inside and outside, but as executive director, he’ll have to couple political savvy with strong fundraising.
The GOP operative gained some fundraising experience working in development for the Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, but the RGA is another league. The committee spent more than $100 million on races last year alone.
At least he has his résumé to fall back on.
“Every donor in the country knew about Virginia in 2009 and that gives him a calling card to every donor in the country,” said media consultant Brad Todd, who worked with the RGA in that race.
Republican governors and strategists agree that Cox has the right experience and temperament to guide the committee forward.
Harris highlighted Cox’s ability to resolve delicate issues within the campaign in a diplomatic and balanced way.
“We had very strong personalities. ... Phil somehow found a way to resolve the tension and keep everyone focused on my election,” Harris said.
After Cox helped Harris get elected, he took a job on his legislative staff. When re-election time came around, Harris put Cox in charge, but it was unclear what specific role he would play.
“He told me he didn’t need a title,” Harris recalled fondly. “He didn’t have a title and didn’t need one,” even though, “everything went through Phil.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.