SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom secured the first of two slots in the November election to replace Jerry Brown as California’s governor while Republican businessman John Cox was running a strong second in Tuesday’s balloting.

Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, was the first candidate to announce a bid for governor more than three years ago and was strongly favored for the top slot. He leaned heavily on his decision in 2004 to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco, touching off years of debate over gay marriage in California and around the country.

With about 1.8 million votes counted he had 34 percent to Cox’s 27 percent. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, was third with 11 percent and needed a strong showing on his home turf in California’s largest city to close the gap.

Because of California’s “jungle primary ,” the top two vote-getters – regardless of party – advance to a runoff in November.

The race is one of hundreds of contests across the state that could solidify Democratic dominance and reshape the fight for control of the U.S. Congress.

The election is pivotal for Republicans looking to end their mounting struggles and gain a stronger foothold in the nation’s largest state. For Democrats, who risk getting shut out of key congressional races, it has massive implications for their push to retake control of the U.S. House.

Democrats need to gain 23 districts nationally to flip the majority in the House, and a key part of their strategy is expanding their 39-14 advantage in the home state of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

The key battlegrounds are seven districts, mostly in Southern California, where Hillary Clinton defeated then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, making the districts targets this year.

Democrats hope to avoid their nightmare scenario – the vote is split among a crowded field of Democrats and two Republicans get the only slots in the November election.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is seeking another six-year term at age 84 and is expected to cruise into November when her likely opponent will be fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon, the former state Senate leader. There are 11 unknown Republicans in the race and none was backed by the party.

Elsewhere, San Francisco will choose a new leader following the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee, and a Northern California judge, Aaron Persky, faces a recall for the light sentence he gave a former Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted a drunken woman.

In the race for governor, recent polls showed a surge by Cox, who was endorsed by Trump. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa, seen as a major threat to Newsom when the campaign started, has tailed off. He campaigned furiously in the final days to try to close the gap.

There are 27 candidates on the ballot for governor, including state Treasurer John Chiang and former education Superintendent Delaine Eastin, both Democrats.

The campaign has played out largely under the radar despite millions of dollars in spending by candidates and their independent supporters. The closing days of the race were marked as much by dueling complaints over that spending as by differences between the candidates, their priorities and their styles of governing.

Sean Spicer, 42, a San Diego resident who works in marketing, said he voted because it’s a civic duty – though he doesn’t like California’s top two primary system and said it is showing its shortcomings this year.

“We have 7,000 candidates vying for governor and so the top two primary system means you end up voting for people who you think can win not who you believe in,” he said.

Evelyn Corado, a 50-year-old preschool teacher from Huntington Beach and naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador, chose Villaraigosa for governor.

“He was already mayor of Los Angeles and I saw him do a lot for the Hispanic community,” she said after casting her ballot.

Cox, a businessman from San Diego has run unsuccessfully for a number of offices in his native Illinois but gained footing among California Republicans as the campaign progressed. He and Travis Allen both aligned with Trump – Allen repeatedly noted Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in the 2016 presidential election; Cox said he regrets the choice.

Trump is a popular punching bag for Democrats and unpopular with independents but maintains strong support and loyalty from the GOP base.

“I don’t think there will be a blue wave at all,” registered Republican Keith Smith, 66, said outside a Solana Beach polling place where he voted for Cox.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press.

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