Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was elected governor on Tuesday, easily defeating Republican John Cox, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein won a fifth term, despite a feisty challenge by Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León.
Calling himself humbled by the victory, Newsom promised to help restore the California Dream, and called the state where he was born 51 years ago “too big to fail and too powerful to bully.” He gave an inclusive speech and declared that “the best is yet to come.”
Newsom went out of his way to thank Gov. Jerry Brown, who he has known his entire life. It will be the first time in 130 years that one Democratic California governor is passing the baton to another Democrat.
Newsom promised earlier this week to carry on Brown’s legacy “to take risks without being reckless. Not to advance profligate ways but to continue to invest in our future and invest in our rainy day reserve.” In style and in many policies, Newsom will be very different, probably more liberal and likely more confrontational with President Donald Trump.
“There is no problem in California that isn’t somehow somewhere being solved by a Californian,” he told the crowd at Exchange LA, a club in downtown Los Angeles.
Cox conceded shortly after 9:30 p.m., telling several hundred people at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego that he had called Newsom to congratulate him.
Elsewhere on the ballot, voters retained a 12-cent per gallon gasoline tax that generates $5.2 billion to repair roads and bridges. The gas tax repeal initiative, Proposition 6, was the brainchild of U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and other Republicans who believed it would gin up conservatives who would turn out to vote and help Republicans hold control of Congress.
After placing the measure on the ballot, Republicans spent little money to wage a campaign, while opponents led by Brown, construction companies and building trades raised $46 million to defeat it.
In other races:
- Control of the U.S. House of Representatives shifted to the Democrats even before Californians had finished voting, leaving only the margin—and San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s potential House speakership—in question.
- Democratic environmental attorney Mike Levin won a San Diego-Orange County congressional seat, defeating Republican Diane Harkey. Republican Darrell Issa held the seat but quit. With Levin’s victory, the GOP holds only 13 of California’s 53 congressional seats; four other races were too close to call.
- Attorney General Xavier Becerra defeated Republican challenger Steven Bailey.
- Marshall Tuck led Assemblyman Tony Thurmond in the $50 million race for superintendent of public instruction.
- Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens took a narrow lead in the race for insurance commissioner against former Republican Steve Poizner, now a no-party-preference candidate. Poizner would be the first no-party preference state officeholder in California.
- Former Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis defeated Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez in the race to become lieutenant governor.
- On Wednesday morning, Democratic women flipped one and possibly two seats, giving them up to 28 seats in the 40-seat state Senate. Democrat Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas was ahead in the race to replace termed-out Republican Anthony Cannella of Ceres, and Sanger City Councilwoman Melissa Hurtado defeated Republican Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford.
- Democrats have won at least 55 seats in the 80-seat Assembly and could gain more as vote counting continues.
- Proposition 10, an initiative to open the way for rent control, failed after landlords and real estate interests spent $76 million to kill it.
- Proposition 8, an initiative to cap dialysis company profits, lost after dialysis companies spent $111 million to kill it.
The story of the night was Newsom, the son of a divorced mother who worked multiple jobs and a judge, William Newsom, who was appointed to the state court of appeal by Brown in his first term.
The campaign for governor initially featured more than 30 candidates, including four Democrats with serious prospects. But the race was all but over when Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, failed to make it into the top-two primary, despite a $20 million-plus campaign to boost his chances by wealthy charter public school advocates.
Newsom helped bring about Cox’s second-place finish in the June primary by airing ads that detailed Cox’s support for and Trump’s endorsement of Cox. The spots were intended to introduce and endear Cox to Republican primary voters.
Fewer than a fourth of California’s 19.7 million voters are registered Republicans, making Newsom’s path to victory clear.
The frontrunner held one debate that aired on public radio in the morning, avoided mistakes, and focused on helping build super-majorities in the Legislature and helping elect Democrats to Congress.
In a state where Trump’s popularity is well below 40 percent, Cox avoided talk of the president and tried to focus on income inequality, the housing crisis, opposition to the gasoline tax, and the inability of many Californians to make ends meet.
All those messages might have resonated, but Cox was an unlikely messenger.
Cox, 63, is a wealthy lawyer and entrepreneur who as recently as 2010 listed his home address as being in Florida, and previously lived in Chicago where he ran for Congress, the U.S. Senate and, in 2008, the presidency. He helped fund his campaign with $5.7 million of his own money and raised another $8.3 million.
Newsom raised more than $30 million for the race, much of it from organized labor, plaintiff’s attorneys, cannabis entrepreneurs and various other businesses with interests in Sacramento. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent $2.825 million in an independent campaign to help Newsom.
Newsom has no shortage of ideas: Confronting California’s homelessness and housing crises; focusing on improved care for severely mentally ill people; funding universal preschool.
He supports single payer health care but has not disclosed how he would fund it, and he is a true believer in doing whatever one state can do about climate change.
In Sacramento, reality tends to bend big ambitions. Brown had the good fortune of presiding over an expanding economy and an unemployment rate hovering at 4 percent.
That cannot go on forever, as Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest. By law, California must balance its budget. In economic downturns, tax revenue falls and governors must cut programs or at best maintain status quo, to the dismay of interest groups that protest any nick and dent to their programs.
On a personal level, Newsom is engaging, glib and quick-witted. He also can be thin-skinned, critics say. He and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker and actress, have four young children: Montana, Hunter, Brooklynn, and Dutch. They live in Marin County.
Newsom made his money by opening a chain of wine stores and restaurants, with funding from family friends who happen to include heirs to the Getty family oil fortune.
As mayor, he made national news in 2004 by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples and was featured in a national fashion magazine lounging on a luxurious rug at a Gerry home with his glamorous then-wife, attorney Kimberly Guilfoyle.
Guilfoyle, a former Fox News analyst, now is Donald Trump Jr.’s love interest, awkward for Newsom, who campaigned in large part on his eagerness to confront President Trump.
Like Newsom, Feinstein is a San Francisco native and a former San Francisco mayor. She ascended to that office in the most horrific of ways 40 years ago this Nov. 27 when then-Mayor George Moscone was assassinated.
Feinstein made her name as a no-nonsense civic leader. After losing a race for governor in 1990, she won her Senate seat two years later in the 1992 wave of female candidates whose rise was dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”
In the Senate, she has charted a centrist brand of politics that includes both championing gun control and supporting the water rights of Central Valley farmers.
Feinstein, 85, is the oldest sitting U.S. senator. She’s also the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was at the center of the confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Feinstein received the letter in which Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers, and referred the letter to the FBI.
De León tiptoed around the question of Feinstein’s age, instead contending that he would be a more aggressive representative. He won the Democratic Party endorsement, but that proved to be of little help.