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Liberal Democrat Gavin Newsom and Trump-backed Republican John H. Cox will face off in the November general election to decide California's next governor.
Under California's unusual "jungle primary" system, the top two vote-getters — regardless of party — advance to the general election. In all, 27 candidates vied to succeed Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who was ineligible to run again because of term limits.
Based on 99 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday's statewide primary results, Newsom had 33 percent of the vote and first place while Cox was second with 26 percent. They were separated by about 285,000 votes.
Newsom, the state's lieutenant governor and an ex-mayor of San Francisco, had been widely expected to be the top vote-getter since he was the longtime frontrunner in the governor's race. Cox took the number two spot and had been gaining in most recent public opinion polling following President Donald Trump three weeks ago tweeting his endorsement of the conservative San Diego businessman.
"This is only the first step to turning around this state and taking back California for all of Californians," Cox told supporters Tuesday evening during a Republican Party gathering in San Diego. "Gavin Newsom and the Democrats are going to have to take responsibility for what they've done to this state."
Cox started his remarks to the crowd by noting that Americans voted a businessman into the White House and it was now time to put a businessman into the governor's mansion in Sacramento.
Speaking to supporters in San Francisco on Tuesday evening, Newsom took a swipe at Cox: "It looks like voters will have a real choice this November — between a governor who is going to stand up to Donald Trump and a foot soldier in his war on California." Newsom, 50, also promised to tackle everything from guaranteed health care and childhood poverty to the state's affordable housing crisis.
Political observers say Cox, 62, faces an uphill battle in the next five months before the general election because California historically has tended to lean Democratic in statewide races. Also, Trump lost California by more than 4 million votes to Democrat Hillary Clinton despite traditional GOP strongholds in places like Orange County.
Registration of Republicans in California has fallen from 36 percent in 1997 to about 25 percent as of January, according to figures from the state. Democratic registration as of January 2017 was nearly 45 percent of the state's total registered voters while "no party preference" was 25 percent.
Regardless, Republicans are hoping a backlash against California's so-called sanctuary state laws that protect undocumented immigrants as well as a push to repeal state gas taxes could boost Cox's chances in the November runoff.
Cox was behind an effort to gather signatures for a statewide initiative to repeal the increase in state gas taxes and vehicle fees. Last year, California's Democratic-controlled legislature approved raising the state excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, or a 40 percent increase.
California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, is in a legal fight with the Trump administration involving sanctuary state laws signed into law last year by Brown. At least 35 local jurisdictions in the state have passed measures to oppose California's sanctuary laws, including two large counties in Southern California — San Diego and Orange County.
Brown leaves office in January with a state forecast to have a surplus of billions of dollars in the 2018-19 financial year. When Brown assumed office in 2011, California faced a $27 billion deficit.
Among other gubernatorial contenders, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the ex-mayor of Los Angeles, came in third place in the gubernatorial contest with 13.5 percent while Travis Allen, a GOP state Assembly member, was in fourth place with about 10 percent. Democrat John Chiang, the state treasurer, was placing fifth with 9 percent, and Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and former state schools chief, was in sixth with about 3 percent.
Allen ran on a campaign positioning himself as "the only true conservative" and pointed out that Cox didn't vote for Trump in the 2016 election. Cox, who made his money in the housing business, said during a debate last month that he regrets not voting for Trump.
Cox's campaign spent about $5 million during the primary for his run for governor while Newsom's campaign spent nearly $10 million, according to the latest state data. Newsom still had a war chest with more than $9 million left as of this week while Cox's campaign recently had less than $500,000 in ending cash.
Tuesday's primary election in the Golden State wasn't without problems.
A glitch in some polling places in Los Angeles County caused nearly 119,000 names to be missing from the roster of eligible voters. County officials blamed the issue on a printing error and insisted those affected voters were offered provisional ballots at polling places.
Villaraigosa raised questions Tuesday evening about the voting glitches in his hometown and asked Los Angeles County officials to keep polling places open longer. That request wasn't granted and would have required a court order.