Democrat Newsom to face Republican Cox in race to be California governor; Villaraigosa shut out

California gubernatorial candidates (L-R) Tom Cox, Gavin Newsom, and Antonio Villaraigosa, were the three to watch going into Tuesday's primary election.
California gubernatorial candidates (L-R) Tom Cox, Gavin Newsom, and Antonio Villaraigosa, were the three to watch going into Tuesday's primary election.
Mary Plummer/KPCC, Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the New York Times, Denis Poroy/AP

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Gavin Newsom came into Tuesday's primary with polling showing he had a significant lead. And not long after the polls closed, the current Lt. Governor and former San Francisco mayor was declared the winner.

So the big question was: Who's No. 2?

The answer is John Cox, a San Diego Republican who was endorsed by President Donald Trump last month.

Though the vote count was far from final Tuesday night – the wide lead was a stunning defeat for the former mayor of Los Angeles. Antonio Villaraigosa was initially a favorite in the governor’s race, and had been polling close to second in recent days.

In California's unusual primary system, the top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Shortly after 11 p.m., Villaraigosa conceded in a speech that thanked both his fellow Democrat Newsom and Republican Cox. He told supporters he'd tried to reach Newsom on the phone and urged them: "Let’s all give him a hand."

“Gavin, thank you for caring enough about this state to put your hat in the ring,” he said. "To John Cox, thank you as well. Different parties, different views of the world. Let’s give him a hand too.”

Antonio Villaraigosa concedes in the race to be California's next governor Tuesday night, June 5, 2018.
Antonio Villaraigosa concedes in the race to be California's next governor Tuesday night, June 5, 2018.
Signe Larsen/KPCC

More significantly, he signaled that this might be it for him on the political stage. In a speech where he waved off the teleprompter, Villaraigosa said it was night where he had to speak from the heart.

"This town has blessed me and my family, that’s why, that’s why, I wanted to run for governor," he said. "I wanted to stand for the notion that to whom much is given, much is required. When you’ve been blessed by the California dream, you got to make sure that you open that door for the rest."

It was not the outcome Villaraigosa and his team wanted from a primary race that had gotten bruising. Villaraigosa spent the final days of his campaign trekking across the state on a round-the-clock schedule, even campaigning at several Los Angeles locations on election day itself.

Newsom, for his part, had made it clear he'd rather face Cox in the general election.

Cox addressed that head on in his speech to supporters Tuesday night in San Diego.

“Be careful, Mr. Newsom. Be careful what you wish for," he said.

Cox, a venture capitalist who now lives in Rancho Santa Fe, also told the crowd they'd already put a businessman in the White House and it was now time to put one in the governor's mansion.

At an election night party in San Francisco's Mission District, Newsom drew a bright line between his point of view and that of his GOP opponent. 

"Our values, as you know, are under assault," he said. "We are engaged in an epic battle and it looks like voters will have a real choice this November between a governor who's going to stand up to Donald Trump or a foot soldier in his war against California."

The result means Californians will wait at least another four years to elect a Latino to the state's highest office. The only Latino governor to serve was Romualdo Pacheco, who was appointed to the office in 1875.

Villaraigosa had been counting heavily on support from his L.A. base.

Even before the polls closed, his camp got bad news. A printing error had kept more than 118,ooo names off the L.A. County voter rolls.

Those voters should have been able file provisional ballots but Villaraigosa's campaign argued more was needed to address the mistake. His campaign issued a formal request to the L.A. County Registrar’s office calling for them to keep the polls open until Friday.

As the votes continued to be tallied, it became clear the gap was too wide. Those missing names represented just 2 percent of registered voters in L.A. County.

There are now two schools of thought on who benefits the most from a Democrat facing a Republican in the general election.

California's recent history as a solid blue state means Newsom is highly likely to take over for Gov. Jerry Brown. Registered Republicans make up just 25.1 percent of state voters and Democrats 44.4 percent, according to the latest numbers released ahead of the election by the Secretary of State's office. Another 25.5 percent of the statewide rolls are made up of voters who chose not to select a party preference, outnumbering state Republicans. 

With Villaraigosa out, it allows Democrats to focus financial resources around one candidate.

But others argue having a Republican on a top-of-the-ballot race may motivate the GOP's base. That, in turn,  could lift candidates in other races expected to be hard fought, including some key Congressional seats and state ballot measures before voters in November.