LOS ANGELES — Donald Trump easily won the California Republican primary on Tuesday as voters cast ballots for presidential candidates, a new U.S. senator and a host of other offices in a late-season primary that thrust the nation’s most populous state back into the political spotlight.
Trump won the GOP contest as other Republican candidates remained on the ballot even though they dropped out of the race.
Turnout was steady but not spectacular, despite a recent surge of interest that pushed voter registration to nearly 18 million people.
Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were in a close race. A loss could tarnish Clinton’s presidential campaign but not derail her path to her party’s nomination, which she has enough support to secure, according to a delegate count by The Associated Press.
Clinton carried California in the 2008 presidential primary over then-Sen. Barack Obama, and she hoped another victory would be a capstone to her history-making candidacy. Sanders wants to win the delegate-rich state to bolster his case that he is better positioned to beat presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the fall.
Sanders’ campaign said it was a “rush to judgment” to declare Clinton the presumptive nominee because superdelegates are not allocated by the popular vote and can switch their support before the Democratic convention in late July. He also noted that he would return home to Vermont after Tuesday and “assess where we are.”
Voters also were narrowing the field for the November general election in contests for the U.S. House, both chambers of the state Legislature and numerous local races.
Clinton’s experience as a former secretary of state and U.S. senator clinched the vote of Stephanie Caselli, a nurse for newborns and new mothers at a hospital in Sonoma County. Sanders had Caselli’s admiration but lost it by staying in the race after Clinton moved well ahead.
“I think he’s hurting the party by hanging on,” Caselli said. “He should think of the country before he thinks of himself.”
In another marquee contest, California voters faced a historic choice for U.S. Senate that could for the first time pit two Democrats — both women and minorities — against one another in November.
Polls have shown California Attorney General Kamala Harris as the favorite, followed by U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County. Two former Republican party chairmen and a physicist-turned-software developer are among several GOP contenders for the seat, but none has polled above single digits or raised significant campaign funds in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.
The crowded Senate ticket featured 34 candidates, and voters may have a tough time differentiating.
“There were so many names. I didn’t know 80 percent of them,” said Fresno correctional officer Juan Perez. He ended up choosing Sanchez.
In the state Legislature, Republicans are trying to prevent Democrats from gaining a two-thirds majority in both chambers, which would give the party a virtual lock on political power.
In a further sign of the weakened state of the GOP in California, Democrats face the prospect of several same-party runoffs that have attracted millions of dollars in outside spending in a tug-of-war between the party’s moderate and liberal wings.
California’s primary has triggered a surge of interest, with voter registration hitting a primary election record of 17.9 million. The Field Poll estimates that 45 percent of registered voters will participate in the primary, about two-thirds of them by mail.
Election officials in several large counties — including Los Angeles and San Diego — described turnout as better than the 2012 presidential primary but below that in 2008.
“Maybe a little bit above average, but not too high,” is how Rebecca Spencer, the registrar of voters for Riverside County, characterized turnout.
Many new registrants are not affiliated with either party. The state Democratic Party allows them to vote in its presidential race, but they must request a ballot, and many are unaware of the rules.
Some voters were surprised — and disappointed — to learn Tuesday they couldn’t vote for their preferred presidential candidate.
When registered Green Party voter Christine Peterson, 59, of San Francisco asked for a Democratic ballot to vote for Sanders, she was told no.
“He’s almost an independent, he’s almost a Green … even though he’s on the Democratic ticket,” Peterson said. “He is much more on my page.”
She’s ended up writing in the name of a person who had previously run on a Green ticket.