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SD 15: Big IEs, small turnout and staffers galore

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger probably didn’t win any fans among Capitol staffers when he refused to consolidate the special election in the 15th Senate District with the November general election.

The administration said they need a budget vote – and a full lineup of Senators – sooner than later. But by virtually ensuring a low-turnout race with nothing else on the ballot, Schwarzenegger turned the contest into a pure turn-out-the-base effort in this closely-divided district.

That, in turn, meant scores of legislative staffers from both parties taking vacation time to knock on coastal doors for the two major candidates: Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, and John Laird, an openly-gay former Assemblyman who represented the Santa Cruz area as a Democrat. They’re phone banking and knocking on doors in areas that have been strong for each party in the past – coastal areas like Santa Cruz and Monterey for Democrats, inland and certain San Jose neighborhoods for Republicans.

Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, estimates that turnout will only be between 15 percent and 25 percent. In an era of big-money campaigns, this will take the emphasis off the airwaves and increases the importance of a grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort.

“The lower the turnout, the less effective the advertising,” Hoffenblum said. “What you’ll get is the true believers.”

But the low turnout is only part of the calculus in one of California’s most unusual districts — one that was strange enough to elect Abel Maldonado. Before he left in April to become the state’s Lieutenant Governor, “Maldo” was the only Latino and only moderate among Republicans in the California Legislature. It contains portions of five counties and a huge section of coastline, running from southern Santa Cruz and bits of urban San Jose, down past San Luis Obispo and inland far enough to take in some major farming areas.

The race has also gotten caught up in current events — specifically the debate over offshore drilling. For months, Texas-based oil exploration company PXP tried to convince the state to allow it to use Platform Irene — six miles off the coast of Santa Maria, in the southern part of the district — to drill towards the coast to an oil field that lies in state waters. That effort stalled out when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana, creating the country’s all-time worst oil spill.

These events, in turn, have prompted some efforts to bring in swing voters. The Laird campaign has been hitting Blakeslee with an ad highlighting his time as an Exxon executive and his campaign contributions from oil companies. A group of Laird supporters protested at an Arco station in San Jose on Monday; Arco is owned by BP.

A local independent political operative, Eric Wooten of Capitol Coast, has also been hitting Blakeslee with a billboard, ads and website called BlameSam.org. There, visitors will find references to the nearly $100,000 in contribution Blakeslee has gotten from the industry in his career, his votes in favor of offshore drilling, and a photo of BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose company gave Blakeslee $6,750 over the years.

Oil companies are also major contributors to an independent expenditure, or IE, campaign called The Senior Advocates League PAC, which has spent about $100,000 against Laird. This group, in turn, received $99,000 from JobsPAC. That group has received major support from oil companies in the 2009-10 election cycle, including $123,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from Sempra Energy.

Then, of course, there is the massive importance of this seat to both parties. If the Democrats take it, they’ll only need one Republican vote to get a budget through the Senate. The seat was originally drawn to favor Republicans, and it voted overwhelmingly for Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid in 2006.

But Democrats now own a 41 percent to 34 percent registration advantage in the district. In 2008, Barack Obama won the district by 20 points, and voters rejected Proposition 8 by four points.

“Everything favors the Democrats,” Hoffenblum said — or it would in a normal general election.

Not surprisingly, both candidates are trying to run to the center. One thing Blakeslee has going for him is Laird’s liberal voting record, Hoffenblum said, as well as his own reputation for being relatively moderate in a Republican Caucus without much moderation in it. While not as moderate as Maldonado, Blakeslee has run a series of spots touting his “fiscal responsibility” and ability to reach across party lines. He’s also spent over $100,000 on a series of mailers attempting to portray Laird as too liberal for the district.

Bill Maxfield, Laird’s campaign spokesman, said that Blakeslee was trying to have it both ways. He’s signed a no-tax pledge and has support from Jon Coupal and his Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. But he’s also made public statements saying he could support new taxes in exchange for other reforms.

“Is he doing the conservative thing or is he doing the moderate thing?” Maxfield asked.

Early absentee returns appear to be showing strong turnout in the areas likely to support Blakeslee. But there is also a sense that time may be on Laird’s side, especially with attention festering around the ongoing disaster in the Gulf. Polling done by the Laird campaign showed he and Blakeslee were essentially even, with 32 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

This suggests that neither man will get the majority needed to top 50 percent and avoid an August 22 runoff. The presence of independent candidate Jim Fitzgerald in the race will make it especially hard for Blakeslee to get there, Hoffenblum said. A favorite of the Tea Party, he got some name ID for running against Maldonado in 2008, when there was no Democrat on the ballot. Fitzgerald has only 4 percent support in Laird’s poll — but nearly all of that is likely coming from people who would otherwise support Blakeslee, Hoffenblum said.

Despite repeated telephone calls, Blakeslee’s campaign declined to discuss the race.

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