Familiar Fight Heads Coastward

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It was the independent candidate in tomorrow's election for California's 15th state Senate district who got off the best line of the night in a recent candidates forum -- cracking a joke about the occupations listed on the ballot of the two leading candidates, a joke which sort of served as a reminder that the Legislature often seems stranded on a deserted island, unable to find its way back to the real world.

Jim Fitzgerald told the crowd in Arroyo Grande that up on stage, he felt a little bit like he was on Gilligan's Island.

"We have the professor over there," Fitzgerald said, pointing to Democrat John Laird. "We have the millionaire here," he said motioning to Republican Sam Blakeslee.

The line got a big laugh, but everyone also knows that come Wednesday morning, either the professor or the millionaire is headed to Sacramento.

I recently made a brief trip down to the Central Coast to check on the campaign to succeed Abel Maldonado, which ends tomorrow with a special election runoff; below, you can hear my radio story from this morning on The California Report.

While Fitzgerald and Libertarian Mark Hinkle are also on the ballot, the question is whether Laird can close the gap on Blakeslee. The incumbent assemblymember came within just six-tenths of a percentage point of winning the seat outright in the first special election on June 22. Since then, Laird -- who himself served three terms in the Assembly before being termed out in 2008-- and his Democratic supporters have been traveling up and down the district, in hopes of cajoling enough like-minded voters to show up for round #2.

The race has been, at times, both unusual and predictable -- unusual when the narrative became all about Blakeslee's schedule (he's been taken to task by local journos for skipping some debates by explaining he was part of private budget talks at the state Capitol), but predictable in the larger fight over liberal vs. conservative, unions vs. business, and Sacramento insider vs. man of the people.

That last one -- who is and isn't an insider -- is probably a wash. Blakeslee was, until this winter, the GOP leader in the Assembly. Laird, when he left office, was chair of the powerful Assembly Budget Committee. Both of these men know the ins and outs of state politics well, yet neither is referred to as a politician on the ballot (hence the Gilligan's Island joke); Blakeslee chose to forego using his current title and opted instead for "Independent Business Owner" (which he is); Laird, not 'retired' from the Assembly by choice, is identified as an "educator" (which he's been of late).

Both Laird and Blakeslee would be happy if voters in the district knew more about the status of their relationships with two pretty well known pols. For Laird, it's Barack Obama -- the President took the unusual step of endorsing a state legislative candidate, and Laird's campaign has been distributing flyers touting the endorsement. It's not a bad strategy, considering that Obama won here by 20 points in 2008.

"It's a morale boost," says Laird of the Prez's backing. "We're going to make sure every single person knows about it."

For Blakeslee, it's about his relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- or rather, his distance from the governor when it comes to the budget. "I think he's gone a little too far in some of the cuts that he's made," says Blakeslee, who later said he specifically opposes Schwarzenegger's call to eliminate the CalWorks welfare assistance program.

Both candidates say they are the best choice to find common ground on the state's most thorny issues. And in truth, this election is bigger than just one seat out of 40 in the state Senate. The departure of Maldonado and the subsequent death of Sen. Dave Cox (R-Sacramento) has left the chamber with 25 Democrats and 13 Republicans. A win by Laird places the Dems just one seat away from a supermajority -- a big momentum shift on issues the budget, taxes, etc. A win by Blakeslee may put him in the same catbird seat as Maldo -- a Republican who will be lobbied heavily to break ranks with the conservative base and provide a key vote on budget issues and the like.

That's reflected in the big bucks spent in this race, now more than a combined $6 million in campaign and independent expenditure contributions, with familiar battle lines (labor supporting Laird, business supporting Blakeslee).

The campaign's TV ads have been pretty nasty, with Blakeslee accused of being in the pocket of oil companies (through his previous job experience and through his support for a single offshore oil drilling proposal) and Laird attacked for having helped written several years worth of state budgets (ones that were ratified with GOP votes and Schwarzenegger's signature).

In the end, the real key is going to be turnout. In the June 22 election, the highest turnout -- almost 38% -- was in San Luis Obispo County, Blakeslee's home turf. The second-to-lowest turnout was in Laird's home turf of Santa Cruz County, at 25.7%. If those numbers hold true tomorrow, it's going to be very hard for the Democrat in this race to win. It's also worth noting that one of the more vote-rich areas of the district, Santa Clara County, is a place which neither major candidate is well-known.

We'll know in a couple of days whose campaign pulled off the right combination... and, in the words of one challenger, which castaway is headed back to Gilligan's Island.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • John G

    “That’s reflected in the big bucks spent in this race, now more than a combined $6 billion in campaign and independent expenditure contributions….” You have a typo…I hope this was meant to be $6 million.

  • http://www.kqed.org/weblog/capitalnotes/blog.jsp John Myers

    Wow. I’ve been clearly covering the state budget too much. Alert, folks: I’ve changed the typo mentioned above. Thanks for the catch.