LOS ANGELES — Gavin Newsom, the favorite of the California Democratic Party’s core liberal base, won the top spot in Tuesday’s primary election for California governor, and fight for the second spot on the November ballot went to Republican businessman John Cox.
Cox has poured nearly $5 million into his bid for governor, but his political fortunes grew considerably when President Donald Trump fired off a tweet endorsing him in the final weeks of the campaign.
The election is the biggest test of California’s primary system, which advances the two candidates receive the most votes — who regardless of party — to the November election. Approved by voters in 2010, the top-two primary was envisioned as a way to elect candidates who better reflected California’s electorate, rather than the far-left and far-right nominees emerging from hyperpartisan party primaries.
In the run-up to Election Day, Newsom’s campaign made a brazen effort to tilt the primary to its advantage by attacking Cox in ads and on the campaign trail as Trump’s handpicked favorite and a rabid gun-rights supporter. The tactic was seen as a transparent attempt to elevate Cox among California conservatives so he would have enough Republican support to finish in the top two, squeezing out a more formidable Democrat. In left-leaning California, no Republican has won a statewide race since 2006.
The top-two primary “totally changed the strategy of candidates,” said political scientist Melinda Jackson of San Jose State University.
Newsom also benefited from several advantages in the campaign. He first entered the race in February 2015, more than a year before any of the other major candidates, and has topped the field in fundraising with $35.9 million. And he hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, which tends to back homegrown politicians and routinely sees higher voter turnout compared to Southern California.
Newsom has presented himself to voters as a bold visionary, unafraid to tackle the most confounding issues facing California. He has promised to pursue a state-supported single-payer health care system if he’s elected in November.
“My whole life — we’ve faced down skeptics. Defeatist Democrats who suggest we need to ‘pick our battles,’” Newsom said at the California Democratic Party convention in February. “To me, this is more than a political campaign. It’s about Democrats acting like Democrats — in a battle for America’s soul against a president without one.”
He has also dangled the promise of representing a new era of political activism after eight quiet, fiscally restrained years under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, though he has been careful not to directly criticize the four-term governor.
Newsom has long eyed the governor’s office and has effectively been running since he launched a short-lived gubernatorial bid in 2009, later running for lieutenant governor instead. The early start allowed Newsom to sew up endorsements and lock down prominent donors, leading to his domination in the polls and fundraising since entering the race.
Cox jumped into California’s race for governor as a virtual unknown, a wealthy venture capitalist with a scant resume in public service and an unquenched thirst for the spotlight of political campaigns. He rose to the top of a GOP field distinguished by the lack of a prominent California Republican.
A lawyer and accountant, Cox championed the Republican-led effort to repeal the recently approved gas-tax increase and joined with conservatives in criticizing the so-called sanctuary state policy embraced by Brown and Democratic legislators.
From the outset, Cox has painted himself as a political outsider with the well-earned business sense to oust the “cronies” in Sacramento. He blamed California’s Democratic leadership for the state’s high poverty rates, high taxes, failing schools and crumbling, traffic-choked roads.
But it was the president’s endorsement that really energized the Cox campaign. The endorsement also shielded Cox after he came under fire from the right for admitting he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the 2016 presidential election. Cox now says he backs the president “100 percent.”