Gavin Newsom delivers a primary victory speech that he said wasn't a victory speech before supporters in San Francisco. Photo by Byrhonda Lyons for CALmatters
In Gavin Newsom's affluent school district in Kentfield, most dashboard ratings were exemplary blues.

Updated June 6

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who gained national prominence with his early embrace of same-sex marriage and his unabashed support for marijuana legalization, easily won the top slot in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown.

San Diego-area businessman John Cox, a Republican, won the second spot, defeating former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.

Villaraigosa conceded Tuesday and was quick to endorse Newsom.

“It looks like voters are going to have a real choice this November — between a governor who is going to stand up to Donald Trump and a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California,” Newsom told a gathering at Verso, a nightclub he owns in San Francisco, a reference to Cox.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, seeking her fifth full term, easily sewed up the top spot, and will face state Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat, who prevailed over under-funded Republican contenders. With more than 99 percent of precincts reporting, Feinstein had swept up 44 percent to de Leon’s 11 percent.

And Democrats appeared to secure one of the two top spots in key competitive congressional races in Southern California, despite fears that because of an abundance of candidates and the nature of the top-two primary, they would have been shut out. Looking toward November, optimistic Democrats have visions of winning some or all of the seven Republican-held California seats that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential race—part of their strategy to to flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

At least a million votes remain to be counted statewide, with mail-in ballots postmarked by election day continuing to come in. Adding to the night’s drama, the Los Angeles County registrar of voters acknowledged a printing error that could put 118,000 votes into question.

The pivotal governor’s contest has garnered the most attention throughout the primary season. Newsom collected 33 percent of the vote, followed by Cox with 26 percent and Villaraigosa lagging at just above 13 percent.

With 1.52 million Twitter followers, Newsom positions himself as the anti-Donald Trump, regularly taunting the president on social media. Trump, in turn, used his considerable clout with Republican voters to help Cox with a Twitter endorsement.

Newsom enters the general election campaign as the presumptive frontrunner, and will use the summer and fall to make sure that voters understand that Cox is Trump’s choice. A recent poll showed 30 percent of voters have a favorable view of Trump. Only a fourth of registered voters are Republican, compared with 44 percent of voters who are Democrats.

Newsom, 50, is a fourth generation San Franciscan whose father, William Newsom, was a California Court of Appeal justice appointed by Jerry Brown in his first stint as governor. Newsom, who at various times has tried to position himself as a business-friendly Democrat, owns restaurants with investors including heirs to the Getty oil fortune.

He got his start in politics at age 29 in 1997, when then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors. After he was elected mayor in 2003, Newsom—in his first public act—took the extraordinary step of presiding over same-sex marriages at San Francisco City Hall.

That gave him a national spotlight, although many Democratic Party elite believed he had pushed too far too fast. Newsom proved to be ahead of other politicians when public opinion turned and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 affirmed that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as any straight couples.

Newsom brought glamour to City Hall. A national magazine photographed him with his then wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, lounging on a plush rug, looking every bit the part of a new-age Kennedy couple.

They soon split, however, and Guilfoyle decamped to New York where she is a Fox New personality and reportedly dated the newly single Donald Trump Jr. Amid their break-up, Newsom had an affair with an aide who was married to one of his closest advisors, a blunder that remains fodder for political attacks.

Newsom officially began running for governor in February 2015, though his campaign began much sooner,  in 2010, when he considered running but thought better of it when Brown entered the race.

He initially balked at seeking the post of lieutenant governor, dismissing the office as inconsequential. But although a lieutenant governor has few official duties, Newsom got over his hesitation, and used the post as a platform to raise his profile by opposing University of California tuition increases, and supporting single-payer health care, the legalization of recreational marijuana, and a 2016 initiative to regulate firearms and bullets.

Newsom’s political support is especially strong in the Bay Area and Northern California, where Democratic turnout traditionally is high. He raised more than $26 million for his race, much of it coming from San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Organized labor including teachers unions spent upward of $6 million independent campaigns to help boost Newsom.

From the start, Villaraigosa was his main Democratic rival. A former United Teachers of Los Angeles executive and Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa started out a firebrand liberal, but tempered his views as Los Angeles mayor when he was forced to cut budgets during the Great Recession.

Unlike Newsom, Villaraigosa had never run statewide and had been out of office since his time as mayor ended in 2013—factors that had hampered his ability to raise money.

Hoping to help Villaraigosa, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other wealthy charter school advocates funded a $22 million-plus ad campaign on his behalf. It was a bust.

Chiang had sufficient money to run a significant campaign, but failed to connect with large numbers of voters. Eastin stirred some passion on the left, but didn’t raise the millions it takes to wage a statewide campaign.

Cox, 63, is an attorney and investor who lives in Rancho Santa Fe and spent $5 million of his own money in the primary, more than enough to beat his closest Republican rival, Assemblyman Travis Allen.

GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks to reporters on Election Night. Photo by Samantha Young for CALmatters
GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks to reporters on Election Night. Photo by Samantha Young for CALmatters

“It wasn’t Donald Trump that made California the highest-taxed state in the country, it was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats,” Cox said told his party in San Diego.

Cox moved to California from the Chicago area after running unsuccessfully for Congress, the U.S. Senate and president of the United States.

He calls himself a Jack Kemp Republican, a reference to the New York congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee who died in 2009. Kemp was a leading opponent of Proposition 187, the divisive 1994 initiative that sought to cut all public aid for undocumented immigrants, warning it would tar the reputation of the GOP and “contribute to a nativist, anti-immigrant climate.”

Cox has said he voted against Donald Trump in 2016 but has come to embrace his policies, including Trump’s call for an expanded wall at the Mexico border. Cox also has supports taxpayer funded private school vouchers, slashing state income taxes, and a complex restructuring and vast expansion of the Legislature, essentially increasing its size to 12,000 from its current 120.

In the most contested congressional races, with more than 99 percent of precincts reporting:

  • Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Costa Mesa Republican who has been criticized for being close to Russians, led a crowded field. Democratic contenders Harley Rouda was ahead of fellow Democrat Hans Keirstead, but that could changes as more votes are tallied.
  • Congresswoman Mimi Walters,  an Irvine Republican, was assured one of the top two spots. Her opponent in November will be Democrat Katie Porter, a UC Irvine law professor.
  • Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from Fallbrook, announced his retirement last year prompting three accomplished Republicans and several Democrats to run. Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey, an Orange County Republican, won the top spot. Democrat Mike Levin held the second spot early Wednesday.
  • In the North Orange County seat vacated by retiring Republican Ed Royce, former Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim was headed into a November run-off against Democrat Gil Cisneros.
  • Republican Rep. Jeff Denham was the top vote-getter in his Central Valley district, with Democrat Josh Harder polling second.

In statewide races:

  • Insurance Commissioner: Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Poizner led in his effort to reclaim the office of insurance commissioner, this time as a no-party preference candidate. He will face Democrat Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens. Poizner had been a Republican in 2006 when he won the seat, and lost the Republican primary for governor in 2010.
  • Superintendent of Public Instruction: Charter public school advocate Marshall Tuck and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Richmond Democrat, were heading for a fall run-off..
  • Attorney General: Incumbent Xavier Becerra, appointed by Brown in 2017 after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, led the field, and will face a Republican former judge, Steven Bailey.  Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones lagged in fourth place.
  • Lieutenant governor: Seeking to replace Newsom, Democrat Eleni Kounalakis, an Obama administration ambassador to Hungary, was leading, followed by Democratic Senate Health Committee Chairman Ed Hernandez of the San Gabriel Valley. The leading Republican, San Marino investor Cole Harris, a Republican and a first time candidate, appears to have failed to secure the second slot. Harris had spent $2.2 million of his own money and received the California Republican Party endorsement.

In key legislative contests:

  • A Republican-backed recall of Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, succeeded. He will be replaced by Republican Ling Ling Chang. Newman had won what was a Republican-held seat in 2016, and incurred the wrath of conservative talk radio hosts for voting  to impose a 12-cent per gallon tax on gasoline to repair roads and bridges.
  • The State Building and Construction Trades Council failed in its costly campaign to unseat Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens. Garcia was a leader of the #MeToo movement until she was accused of harassing staffers, and making anti-gay comments and threatening statements about Asian-Americans. She will face a Republican in the fall campaign.
  • In the San Gabriel Valley, Democrat Tony Mendoza lost his attempt to regain a seat he quit in February amid charges that he sexually harassed young women. Labor and pro-charter school advocates poured more than $2 million into a campaign to block his return. Republican attorney Rita Topalian was the top vote-getter and has a shot at winning the seat in November.

Voters also decided five propositions, each of them placed on the ballot by the Legislature. Four were virtually without controversy or opposition and were passing.

One, Proposition 70, would give Republican lawmakers a chance to help shape how the state spends billions in cap-and-trade revenue. Brown and Republican Assemblyman Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley signed the ballot argument for the measure. The California Democratic and Republican Parties, however, opposed it, and it lost.

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Dan Morain joined CalMatters in March 2018. He is the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Morain also spent 27 years at The Los Angeles Times, and has covered the Capitol since 1992.