LOS ANGELES - Gov. Jerry Brown easily advanced to the November general election to seek an unprecedented fourth term, where he will face moderate first-time candidate Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who pitched himself as the best candidate to rebrand the struggling California Republican Party.
The GOP race between Kashkari and his Republican rival, conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, became a proxy fight for the future of the GOP in a state that overwhelmingly leans Democratic and voters have given Brown high approval ratings.
Establishment GOP leaders rallied around Kashkari's candidacy, and the 40-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker poured $2 million of his own money into the race in the final weeks as polls showed him trailing Donnelly, a tea party favorite.
"Beginning tonight, Republicans must come together, support one another and focus our energy on changing Sacramento," Kashkari said in a statement early Wednesday after Donnelly called to concede the race. "My commitment is to rebuilding California's middle class and re-energizing the Republican Party."
Brown finished first based on early returns Tuesday night, and told reporters outside the historic governor's mansion in Sacramento, "I take nothing for granted" in November.
"At this point, 40 years from the time I won my first primary for governor of California, I'm ready to tackle problems, not on a partisan basis, but on the long-term basis of building California and making sure we're ready for the future," said Brown, who is 76.
Brown has pursued a pragmatic approach since returning to the governor's office in 2011 after serving from 1975-1983. He won praise for helping to close a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit and persuading voters to approve temporary sales and income tax increases, allowing the Democratically controlled Legislature to funnel more money to public schools.
Meanwhile, Donnelly and Kashkari offered competing visions for the struggling GOP. Donnelly is a social conservative who supports expanding gun rights and restricting immigration and worried some of the Republican establishment with his heated rhetoric; Kashkari, a son of Indian immigrants who is a social libertarian and fiscal conservative, has focused on rebuilding the middle class.
Kashkari has pitched himself as appealing to the state's rapidly changing demographics, which the GOP needs to attract after decades of sliding registration. Kashkari, however, has been dogged by criticism of his 2008 vote for Obama and his lead role in the U.S. Treasury's bank bailout.
In other gubernatorial primaries, Republican governors winning renomination included Robert Bentley in Alabama, Dennis Daugaard in South Dakota and Terry Branstad in Iowa. Gov. Susana Martinez had no Republican primary opposition in her pursuit of a second term in New Mexico.
Locked in a race that won't end, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel pointed toward a possible June 24 runoff after battling to a near-draw Tuesday in a primary that underscored Republican differences.
Unofficial returns from 98 percent of the state's precincts showed McDaniel with slightly over 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race and Cochran with slightly less. It takes a majority by one candidate to avoid a runoff.
Mississippi officials said the vote tally in their state did not include provisional ballots, at least some of them cast as a result of the state's new voter ID law. Those voters have five days to furnish proof of residence. An official canvass could take longer, until June 13.
The Mississippi contest easily overshadowed races in seven other states, several of which sent GOP establishment-backed candidates into fall campaigns for Senate seats that Republicans have targeted in their drive to gain six seats and a majority.
State Sen. Joni Ernst overwhelmed her rivals in Iowa, easily surpassing the 35 percent total needed to win the nomination outright. She will take on Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley this fall for a Senate seat long in Democratic hands.
In South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds won the Republican nomination and quickly became a favorite to win a seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Rick Weiland is the Democratic candidate in the heavily Republican state.
And in Montana, appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh and Republican Rep. Steve Daines won nominations en route to a fall campaign that the GOP is expected to target as an opportunity to gain a seat.
Democratic Sens. Tom Udall in New Mexico and Cory Booker in New Jersey also were nominated for new terms, and head into the fall as favorites.