Capitol staffers flocking to the Central Coast for SD 15 race

Capitol staffers from both parties are blanketing the Central Coast on behalf of the two major candidates hoping to fill the 15th Senate District seat recently vacated by Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado. Their efforts will continue until the June 22 election. 

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to consolidate the election with the November 2 general election, he set the stage for a low-turnout election. Since the race depends so heavily on turnout, each major party has sent scores of staff members to mount get-out-the-vote efforts. The parties are focusing on getting their own voters to the polls rather than trying to sway independents.

Polls of the closely-divided district show that former Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, are running neck and neck.

On Tuesday, the Senate Democratic Caucus sent out an email to staffers encouraging people to sign up for phone banking and precinct walking. According to the email, these efforts were focused on “Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, or San Luis Obispo” — middle class enclaves, mostly coastal and relatively urban.

The Democrats are specifically seeking Spanish speakers to walk precincts in certain areas. They’re hoping to turn some of the Latino voters who helped Maldonado win by comfortable margins in 2004 and 2008. He was the only moderate and only Latino in the Republican Caucus prior to leaving the Senate in April.

The Laird campaign also sponsored events such as the “Young Dems invasion” in Santa Clara on Saturday “walk and daiquiris” event on Sunday in Monterey. The request also asked for people to volunteer for a two-week phone banking effort.

“We’ve had people coming down for the last three weekends,” said Laird campaign spokesman Bill Maxfield on Friday afternoon. “It’s been really exciting to have people showing so much enthusiasm.”

On the GOP side, California Republican Party officials have been calling staffers directly, encouraging them to also walk and handle phone banks. They’re focusing on the parts of the district that are in San Jose, according to sources. This city is two hours away from Sacramento — close enough for staffers to spend a day knocking on doors without spending the night.

Much of the Republican base sits in the rural southern and inland parts of the district.

The seat is of vital importance to both parties. The winner gets to fill Maldonado’s unexpired term and doesn’t have to run again until 2012. The Democrats currently have 25 seats out of 40 in the Senate. If they pick up this seat and another in the fall, it would put them over magic the number of 27, where they would no longer need any Republican votes in that house to pass a budget.

In budget negotiations last year, Maldonado was able extract a king’s ransom for his vote. This included getting Proposition 14 on the ballot. Voters approved by a nearly 10 point margin in last week’s primary, completely overhauling the state’s primary system over the objection of every active political party in the state. Proposition 14 allows primary voters to choose any candidate regardless of party affiliation.

Democrats hold a 41 percent to 34 percent registration advantage over Republicans in SD 15. But the district is large and diverse, and 20 percent of the voters decline to state a partisan preference.

In a higher turnout election, much of the effort has focused on these voters. But with turnout expected to be even lower than the 29 percent registered in last week’s primary — and nothing else on the ballot — the efforts by both parties is focusing on getting core voters to the polls.

Polling done by the Laird campaign showed he and Blakeslee were essentially even, with 32 percent and 33 percent respectively. Two other candidates, Libertarian businessman Mark Hinkle and independent Jim Fitzgerald, each have 4 percent. Over a quarter of voters are undecided.

If no one wins a majority, the top-two vote getters move into an August 17 runoff. The governor also chose this date in direct contradiction of the wishes of local election officials, who wanted it consolidated with the November 2 general election.

Both men have been hitting the airwaves.

Laird spent nearly half of what he’s raised — $330,000 out of $812,000 — on a big TV buy starting in late May. He’s been hitting Blakeslee with an ad featuring footage of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico and reminding voters that Blakeslee is a former Exxon executive and who has supported offshore drilling while in the Assembly. Platform Irene, which was at the center of a now-aborted effort to lift the ban on drilling in state waters, lies a few miles off the coast of the district, near Santa Maria.

Blakeslee has raised less, $459,000. But he’s spent over $210,000 on TV advertising in recent weeks. He’s also spent over $100,000 on a series of mailers.

While not as moderate as Maldonado, Blakeslee, a former GOP leader of the Assembly, has been running towards the center, with series of spots touting his fiscal responsibility and ability to reach across party lines.

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