Blakeslee wins vote count, but Laird likes chances in run-off for State Senate seat.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The June 22 special election to fill the state Senate seat vacated by now-Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado featured big campaign contributions and major-league mudslinging in a Central Coast district that stretches from south Santa Clara County to the northern tip of Santa Barbara County.
Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) led the pack of four candidates with nearly 50 percent of the vote, just shy of the majority needed to win outright against his major rival, Democrat John Laird, forcing an August 17 re-run in which the top vote-getter wins the seat. Laird, a former Democratic State Assemblyman and Santa Cruz mayor, came in second with 41 percent of the vote. Six percent went to Independent Jim Fitzgerald of Nipomo, while Libertarian Mark Hinkle of Morgan Hill snagged 3 percent.
At the Democratic headquarters in downtown Monterey, Laird phoned in his thanks to about a dozen campaign-weary volunteers a couple hours after the polls closed.
“We’re smashing ‘em in Monterey and Santa Cruz… We expect to win the election day vote. We’re going to kick their asses,” Laird roared into the phone as the faithful broke into chants of “yes we can.”
Laird garnered 54 percent of the vote in Monterey County to Blakeslee’s 38 percent, and won easily in his home county, Santa Cruz, but trailed in Santa Clara and was trounced in the Blakeslee strongholds of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Assuming the votes hold up once all contested ballots are counted, the totals were 64,676 for Blakeslee (49.7 percent), 53,639 for Laird (41.23 percent), 7,936 for Fitzgerald (7.936 percent) and 3,848 for Hinkle (2.96 percent).
Local turnout was light – about 28 percent in Monterey County. County Democratic Party Chairman Vinz Koller argued that the two-month campaign was too short to get the message out.
“WE CALLED VOTERS TONIGHT WHO DIDN’T REALIZE THERE WAS AN ELECTION TODAY.”
“We called voters tonight who didn’t realize there was an election today,” Koller said.
But the importance of California’s 15th District contest wasn’t lost on some of the nation’s largest corporations. Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T and Phillip Morris, along with big insurance companies and pharmaceutical interests, were among those who contributed to a series of attack ads and mailers primarily funded by the California Chamber of Commerce’s JOBSPAC to the tune of $1.3 million.
A Laird win could shift the balance of power in the state Senate, bringing the Democrats within one vote of the crucial two-thirds majority they need to pass budgets or raise taxes. (A competitive race that pits Salinas Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero against Ceres Mayor Anthony Canella in the 12th District in November could tip the balance.)
Laird trailed in fundraising, but collected more than $600,000 from the state Democratic Party, enjoyed strong labor support, attracted many smaller donations from individuals, and touted his on-the-ground, volunteer voter-to-voter campaign.
Both sides went negative, throwing red meat to their respective bases – the Laird campaign dubbed Blakeslee “Oil Man Sam” because of his former job as an Exxon engineer and executive, and tied him to the Gulf oil disaster with images of flaming rigs and oil-soaked birds, while Blakeslee ads labeled Laird “a train wreck for taxpayers.”
But amid the attack ads, the state’s pressing issues got short shrift, argues San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston.
“I think probably the most important one that’s not being addressed is the state budget situation.” Sure, Gerston says, platitudes like “cut more, spend less,” or “tax more” are common. “But what revenues? To what extent? From where? From whom? And where are you prepared to cut?” he wonders. “It leaves everyone with a lot of questions.”
Laird says he wants to keep state parks and higher education accessible, and considers the governor’s proposed welfare cuts unacceptable. He supports a ballot initiative that would require a simple majority to pass a budget, while Blakeslee wants to maintain the status quo. A Blakeslee spokesman says his candidate would impose spending limits and mandatory budget reserves to solve the budget crisis.
Stark differences in the candidates’ stances on other issues have also gone largely unnoticed. Laird is pro-choice on abortion while Blakeslee is not. When the two men served together in the state Assembly, Blakeslee voted against an oil extraction tax, opposed expanded unemployment benefits for workers sidelined by the 2008 recession and opposed AB 32, California’s groundbreaking law that requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, while Laird supported them.
Both camps say they welcome the chance to appear together in public forums before the August election.
The Blakeslee campaign wasn’t immediately available as election results rolled in, but Maxfield contends that Laird’s grassroots campaign was just beginning to gather steam and will pay off next time around.