John Cox
Republican governor candidate John Cox speaks at a Lincoln Club reception on election night. Photo by Chris Stone

Updated at 3:30 a.m. June 6, 2018

California will see a “traditional” race to decide the state’s next governor, with a Democrat and a Republican facing off in November.

About 40 supporters of governor candidate John Cox squeeze on stage awaiting the Rancho Santa Fe businessman at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Photo by Ken Stone

As expected, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom grabbed a commanding lead Tuesday evening in the race for governor, while Republican John Cox made a strong early bid for second place.

Newsom had 33.4 percent of the vote with 92 percent of precincts reporting, effectively ensuring him of a spot on the November general election ballot. But the real drama is the race for second place.

Cox, the Rancho Santa Fe businessman powered by an endorsement by President Donald Trump, had 26.1 percent of the vote to easily land in second place.

Democratic former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in third place with 13.5 percent trailed by Republican Travis Allen at 9.7 percent and Democrat John Chiang at 9.0 percent.

None of the other 23 candidates had more than 3 percent.

The top two finishers in Tuesday’s election will square off in November, regardless of which party they are from. Recent polls have suggested Cox has pulled ahead of Villaraigosa, bolstered by Trump’s endorsement, along with an ad strategy by Newsom that some political analysts have concluded is intended to increase Cox’s standing among Republican voters and assure him a second place finish. With a Republican not having won a statewide election since 2006, a Cox-Newsom showdown would heavily favor the lieutenant governor.

Republican governor candidate John Cox in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

A poll released last week by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies had Newsom leading with 33 percent support of likely voters, with Cox at 20 percent and Villaraigosa at 13 percent. The poll also found that only 7 percent of voters remained undecided.

Newsom rose to prominence in 2004 when as mayor he directed the San Francisco city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which was in violation of state law at the time. Newsom has remained in the state and national spotlight ever since, and after a brief run for governor in the 2010 election he dropped out in favor of a bid for lieutenant governor when it was clear that Jerry Brown was pulling away with the race. He easily won a second term and made an early declaration in 2015 that he intended to run for governor.

Newsom has proposed a universal healthcare program for California as one of his top priorities and says he supports SB 562, a bill that aims to create a single-payer system. He also promised to oppose Trump’s immigration policies, and has called for universal preschool, two years of free community college, an end to the cash bail system and gun control. He also said he wants set a goal of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025 through an expansion of the low-income housing tax credit program and other initiatives.

Cox is a San Diego-area businessman who has for years pushed the idea of massively expanding the state Legislature to thousands of representatives, which he says would cut down on big money in political campaigns. Cox has failed on several occasions to get his proposal on a state ballot, but the efforts put him on the political map, and he is running on a platform to end Brown’s $52 billion gas tax increase and end the “sanctuary” laws of the state aimed at protecting some immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation.

After distancing himself from Trump early on, he has welcomed the president’s recent endorsement and in many ways is running a campaign similar to Trump’s by pitching himself as a businessman — not a politician — and taking a hard line on immigration, including supporting construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Villaraigosa served as mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 through 2013 after stints as Speaker of the Assembly and on the Los Angeles City Council. His campaign for governor has been backed heavily by billionaire charter school supporters, and he is a longtime proponent of the growth of charters in California.

Villaraigosa has been critical of SB 562, saying it is an unrealistic goal and that California should focus on creating universal healthcare through expansion of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare. He has made economic equality a focus of his campaign through the creation of prosperity zones similar to enterprise zones that gave tax incentives to businesses creating jobs in designated areas. Those zones were eliminated during the Great Recession. Like Newsom, Villaraigosa says he wants to get 3.5 million homes built by 2025 and has proposed bringing back redevelopment agencies as one way to do it along with other initiatives.

Allen of Huntington Beach is opposed to the gas tax and the state’s sanctuary laws and says he wants to work to lower taxes.

State Treasurer John Chiang, meanwhile, has marketed himself as the fiscally responsible underdog in the race. Chiang, a Democrat, has proposed addressing the affordable housing crisis through a bond. He has said he supports SB 562, but that it would need some changes.

Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, is a former state superintendent of public instruction. Despite making education a foundation of her campaign, she lost the coveted endorsement of the California Teachers Association to Newsom and has struggled to get serious momentum in the race.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has held his seat in Sacramento since 2011, and previously held the position from 1975 to 1983, is the state’s longest-serving governor. California governors are elected by popular ballot and serve terms of four years, with a limit of two terms, if served after November 6, 1990.

— City News Service