Thursday, June 17, 2010
T he June 22 State Senate contest could be the highest stakes election you’ve never heard of.
Called just six weeks ago to fill the seat vacated by now-Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, the race is a virtual dead heat between Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) and former Democratic Assemblyman John Laird.
If Laird wins, Senate Democrats will be one vote away from the crucial two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes or pass a budget without Republican approval. (Another local contest between Salinas Democrat Anna Caballero and Central Valley Republican Anthony Cannella could hand the Dems the decisive final vote.)
The district, which spans the Central Coast and beyond from the northern edge of Santa Barbara county to a sliver of Santa Clara county, was drawn for Republican victory a decade ago, but has shifted from red to blue. Barack Obama won big in 2008, and Democrats now hold a six percentage point advantage. However, independents, who make up some 20 percent of the electorate, are a wild card in the race.
Blakeslee consultant Jim Nygren predicts only 30 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots.
“The big focus is you just target higher propensity voters,” Nygren says, adding that the goal for each side is getting its diehard troops to the polls, rather than making an appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.
That may explain ads that blame Laird for California’s budget mess or portray Blakeslee as an oil company lackey.
“He’s probably the greenest Republican I’ve ever seen,” Nygren says. “He’s certainly not the character Laird’s painting.”
While Laird has picked up key enviro endorsements, Blakeslee supported Sierra Club California’s positions 60 percent of the time in 2008, according to Project Vote Smart, and scored a rating of 43 out of 100 points from the League of Conservation Voters that year, but Laird’s ads play on Blakeslee’s former job as an Exxon executive, and show flaming oil rigs and oil soaked birds when his name is mentioned.
Blakeslee has picked up some oil money—directly from Occidental Petroleum and through a California Chamber of Commerce political action committee called JOBSPAC which lists contributions of more than $100,000 from Chevron. Blakeslee also lists big contributions from the insurance and financial industries, and a $100,000 gift from the Republican Party.
The Democrats have invested even more heavily in Laird with more than $600,000 in donations, as well as generous contributions by fellow Democratic pols. Laird counts on strong labor support as well as smaller donations from individual supporters.
Blakeslee touts his ability to work across party lines, and his environmental cred. “I’ve got a strong bi-partisan track record,” he says.
Laird, who was forced from the Assembly by term limits in 2008, says he wants to return to the Legislature to keep higher education accessible, reform Sacramento’s broken system and because he says he relishes “getting off a good line” like the time he responded to Blakeslee’s quoting an Austrian philosopher while presenting Schwarzenegger-backed budget legislation.
Laird recalls saying, “If I was presenting one of the governor’s budget bills, I’d look for some other Austrian, too.”