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.
Cox, by contrast, funded his campaign with much of his own money and has virtually no campaign cash on hand. The businessman and real estate investor, with rental properties in the Midwest, surged ahead of Villaraigosa in polls following Trump's endorsement. It was a major turning point as the two fought it out for second place.
In late May, Trump tweeted his support for Cox saying "California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime and lowering taxes," adding that he looks forward to "working with him to Make California Great again!"
Throughout the race, all four major Democrats sought to brand themselves as a leader of the California resistance to Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, vowing to defend immigrants, work to create greater access to affordable health care and safeguarding the state's clean-energy policies and strict environmental protections.
Cox and Allen fought for the hearts of conservative voters. Allen sought to capitalize on Cox's early dithering on Trump (he didn't vote for him but later said he regretted it).
Total spending in the gubernatorial primary amounted to about $75 million, including nearly $34 million from independent expenditure committees legally forbidden from coordinating with candidates, according to an analysis by Rob Pyers with the nonpartisan California Target Book.
With a late injection of more than $20 million from billionaire charter schools supporters backing Villaraigosa, the top political race in California grew bruising in the final weeks of the campaign. The charter-school advocates, including the CEO of Netflix and a Republican megadonor, attacked Newsom for skipping work as lieutenant governor, overselling his achievements and mismanaging San Francisco as mayor.
Newsom helped fuel Republican support for Cox by touting Trump's endorsement of him. He ran television ads citing Cox's lifelong membership in the National Rifle Association and opposition to stronger gun control laws.
Villaraigosa and Chiang blasted Newsom's strategy, denouncing him for helping to put a Republican at the top of the ticket as the party works to retain control of the House in November.
Villaraigosa emphasized his eight-year tenure as Los Angeles mayor, seeking to convince voters that leading the state's largest city through a recession would make him best prepared to lead California. His told voters he'd be the strongest advocate for immigrants and most willing to change to the state's education system. State Treasurer John Chiang branded himself as the candidate who would continue Brown's legacy as a staunch fiscal steward for the state.
Polling consistently indicated that Chiang and Eastin never had any momentum. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in the race were able to secure the endorsement of their respective parties at conventions this year, a reflection of the ideological split in California among liberals and conservatives.
Villaraigosa and Chiang courted more moderate and independent voters, while Newsom and Eastin went after the party's liberal base. Cox and Allen both tried to appeal to the Republican Party's far-right base while aiming not to alienate conservatives who dislike Trump.
Both Newsom and Villaraigosa during the campaign discussed their biggest political vulnerability – both were involved in affairs as mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.
Newsom acknowledged the affair, calling it a mistake he's learned from that has made him a better person. His wife was a major factor in helping to improve his image, herself campaigning as a feminist who could play a strong role in the next administration. Villaraigosa addressed his extramarital affair during the campaign, calling it the "biggest mistake" of his political life.