Mackinac Island, Mich. – If he intended to embarrass Sen. John McCain, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox could not really have done it more effectively than he has. His announcement Monday that he was stepping down as McCain’s state chairman came just in time for this weekend’s Republican retreat here, which every major GOP presidential candidate was scheduled to attend.
That is why, when McCain speaks tonight at dinner in about seven hours, Republicans here at the retreat will be keeping an especially close eye on the two men. Will McCain make any allusion to it? Will Cox shift in his seat a bit when the Arizona senator enters the room?
On Monday, offering little in the way of detail, anonymous GOP sources told Cox’s side of the story to the press, citing disorganization within McCain’s state campaign and a poor use of resources as his reasons for leaving. The announcement worked as intended: The press immediately began to speculate on “McCain’s Michigan Meltdown.”
But is this story really about McCain and his presidential chances, or is it a local issue involving personal pique and political ambition?
Cox’s parting with McCain came shortly after a falling-out with McCain’s main man in Michigan: controversial Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob, who has fought in (and quite often started) numerous intra-party battles since he first took the post in 1989. Cox and Yob were allies at one point: Yob claims Cox’s 2002 nomination and election as attorney general as one of his own great successes. But their relationship has clearly soured now, culminating when, earlier this month, Cox joined a movement that successfully purged Yob from his party position.
Yob, whose role as committeeman will now end in February, did not return my phone calls for this story, so last night I tracked him down at a McCain event in one of Mackinac Island’s bars. Yob offered only one quote on the situation for the record: “This is not about John McCain, Chuck Yob, or John Yob,” he said. ”This is about Mike Cox being governor.” (John Yob is Chuck’s son and a McCain campaign aide.)
It’s widely known that Cox has his eye on an open governorship in 2010. He will need as much political capital as possible to guarantee himself the Republican nomination in a field with a few strong potential candidates. As one Michigan insider observed, ”As long as Chuck had power in the party, it made sense for Cox to be with McCain.” Now Yob is out, and Cox’s slight of McCain puts him out even further. It could also give him a second chance to choose a candidate.
The timing of Cox’s resignation as chairman defies the mundane explanation that things just aren’t going so well with McCain’s campaign. It’s not exactly new information that McCain’s campaign is faltering or that it’s out of cash — so how can that be the reason to leave now? There have been many moments in this election cycle when it made sense to jump the McCain ship. In early July, the candidate’s abysmal fundraising forced him to lay off most of his staff. One week later, the candidate massacred his senior advisers. The following week, his entire communications shop departed. McCain has never recovered from that month from Hell.
Yet despite McCain’s obvious and embarrassing disarray this summer, Cox stuck with him. Only now, months later and on the eve of Mackinac, did he choose to leave just as McCain was finally showing modest signs of life.
Cox was originally to introduce McCain before his speech tonight. Obviously, he will not be doing so now. The introduction will be given instead by Yob and National Committeewoman Holly Hughes. McCain could become a pathetic figure — a victim of a nasty little fight in Michigan.
Perhaps Cox jumped the gun by lining up with McCain back in December, when he was widely considered the presidential frontrunner. His decision to dump McCain this week has definitely made Cox’s presence felt keenly in Mackinac this weekend: when McCain gets up to speak tonight, many Republicans in the room will think of Mike Cox for at least a moment. What will they be thinking?
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.