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California primary kicks off divisive election season for Democrats

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - Californians voted on Tuesday for a primary election that showed rifts in the state's dominant Democratic party, with incumbent labor-backed candidates fighting reformers in several races.

The poll to choose candidates for governor, secretary of state and numerous legislative and congressional offices, was the kickoff to what may be a long, hard election season for Democrats. The state's open primary system allows the top two vote-winners, regardless of party, to square off against each other in November, and in many cases both will be Democrats.

"It's going to be like scorpions in a bottle," said political analyst David Mark, editor of Politix, a Palo Alto- based website.

In Los Angeles, 18 candidates were certified to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Congressman Henry Waxman, including former City Council member and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, State Senator Ted Lieu and New Age author Marianne Williamson.

Partial returns early on Wednesday showed Republican Elan Carr garnering a surprising 22 percent of the votes in the heavily Democratic district, a narrow lead over Lieu and Greuel, with roughly 20 percent and nearly 17 percent respectively.

The two who received the most votes Tuesday will square off in a November contest expected to get ugly quickly, Mark said.

Several races involve candidates who have been allied with the state's powerful labor unions running against fellow Democrats who are not.

In the contest for Superintendent of Education, incumbent Tom Torlakson, with strong financial backing from teachers unions, was ahead in preliminary returns against former charter school executive Marshall Tuck.

Tuck had called for changes abhorrent to labor, including a lessening of seniority protections for teachers.

Silicon Valley Congressman Mike Honda, who pushed for higher minimum wages and has strong support among labor unions, had a commanding lead, with nearly 50 percent of the votes counted in his Silicon Valley district.

Late returns appeared to show that his opponent in November would be fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a lawyer and former U.S. Commerce Department official, who has support from powerful tech leaders, including Facebook executive and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg.

"It's the sort of old school labor establishment versus tech start-up clash I think we'll see more of in coming years," said Mark.

In the race for governor, the top vote-getter in late returns was incumbent Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has steered the state on a moderate course and has high approval ratings.

Brown was poised to face Republican Neel Kashkari, a moderate who worked for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, after media reported state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, an anti-illegal immigration activist, conceded defeat.

Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, faced little opposition and was in the lead with votes counted by early on Wednesday.

In the race for lieutenant-governor, a November face-off appeared to be shaping up between incumbent Gavin Newsom and Republican Ron Nehring in early returns.

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

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