Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox face off this November in the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.
"Our values are under assault... We're engaged in an epic battle," Newsom told supporters Tuesday, calling Cox a "footsoldier in (Donald Trump's) war on California."
"I've never backed down from a fight," Newsom said, signaling the Democrat-on-Republican matchup this November.
Newsom led Cox as returns continued to roll in, 34 percent to 26 percent. Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles, had 13 percent, while Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen drew 10 percent of votes, followed by the other two major Democrats. State Treasurer John Chiang had 9 percent and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin was drawing 3 percent of the vote.
"One-party rule in Sacramento is bad enough. A one-party election is just plain un-American," Cox told an election-night gathering as he declared victory in the race for second place. He told Newsom, "be careful what you wish for," noting Newsom welcomed a Republican rival in the runoff.
Villaraigosa, who early in the campaign appeared poised to force Newsom into a Democratic runoff, initially called on Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan to keep voting centers open through Friday. More than 118,000 people showed up at polling places and found that their names were not on the list due to a printing error.
"We won't cast aspersions, but we will demand answers," Villaraigosa told a crowd of supporters in Los Angeles. "It's going to be a long night."
But, trailing badly, he ultimately conceded shortly after 11 p.m. and quickly endorsed rival Newsom.
Newsom will now take on a little-known Republican businessman who has never held elected office this November. He and Cox emerged from a field of six major candidates fighting it out in an expensive and contentious race to succeed Brown, setting up a pitched battle for the future direction of the nation's most populous state.
The matchup all but ensures the former two-term San Francisco mayor will be California's next governor. No Republican has won a statewide race in since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and Republican voters are continuing to decline in a state growing more Democratic.
As the clear frontrunner all along, Newsom benefited from strong name recognition and a nearly eight-year tenure as lieutenant governor.
Early on, Newsom appealed to the Democratic Party's liberal base, staking out positions on single-payer health care, universal preschool and ending California's money bail system.
Building his campaign on his most widely known achievement – marrying 4,036 same-sex couples as a young first-term mayor In 2004 – Newsom sought to capitalize on his party's march to the left by touting himself as both unafraid to buck the Democratic Party establishment and best-suited to lead California's resistance to President Donald Trump.
The father of four young children, Newsom campaigned with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who became his strongest campaign surrogate. Throughout his campaign, he touted his record on spearheading California's path to legal weed and leading measures to strengthen the state's gun control laws, foreshadowing a more liberal path ahead for the nation's bluest state.
"California, like San Francisco, is America's coming attraction," Newsom said at a campaign stop in San Francisco last week. "It's time for us to lead, not just lead this state anew, but ultimately this nation and the world we're trying to build."
He walloped his challengers in fundraising, raising more than $25 million since he got into the race in 2015. He heads to the general election with a cash advantage, with nearly $13 million in the bank.
Newsom also out-competed fellow Democrats for endorsements from major interests, including the California Nurses Association and the California Medical Association. Much of his financial support came from the health care industry, Silicon Valley and powerful union groups.