15th District state Senate race looks like a runoff

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

The election to replace Abel Maldonado in the state’s 15th Senate District appears likely to drag on for two more months, as none of the four candidates seeking to succeed him took more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election.

“I think this is headed to a runoff,” said Democratic candidate John Laird, a former assemblyman, shortly after 10:45 p.m. Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee agreed.

With 100 percent of the votes counted over the five counties, Blakeslee held an 11,000-vote lead. That was good for 49 percent of the vote, tantalizingly close to the 50 percent Blakeslee needed to end the race Tuesday.

Laird was second with 41 percent.

Independent Jim Fitzgerald of Nipomo had 6 percent, followed by Libertarian Mark Hinkle of Morgan Hill with just shy of 3 percent.

If Blakeslee does not inch over the 50 percent line in the official count, a runoff will take place Aug. 17.

The 15th District takes in all or part of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties.

The state Senate seat became vacant when Maldonado became lieutenant governor in May.

The race grew expensive, with campaigns and independent groups pumping more than $2 million into it, financial filings show.

It also became harshly negative, and local residents endured a daily drumbeat of negative television ads and fliers.Although both men are experienced state legislative leaders, Blakeslee downplayed his government experience and in his ballot designation declined to mention that he was the Assembly’s Republican leader during much of last year’s budget crisis.

Instead, he attacked Laird, who was chairman of the Assembly budget committee for several years, for creating the state’s fiscal “train wreck.”

For his part, Laird made much of Blakeslee’s ties to Exxon and his substantial donations from oil companies.

Because Blakeslee advocated drilling for oil in the Tranquillon Ridge off Lompoc, Laird ran ads calling him “Oil Man Sam.” The Democrat received an unintended benefit of timing with BP’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blakeslee defended his “train wreck” advertisements, which he said were a way to tell voters the facts about Laird’s record.

Despite the head-butting nature of the campaign, both men have a history of working with the other political party during their time in the Legislature.

Polarized district

The race has taken on a north-south flavor. The gerrymandered district includes parts of five counties. Blakeslee is well known in its southern portions; Laird, a former mayor of Santa Cruz, is a familiar face in the north.

Whichever of them wins will have to go to work on a $19 million state budget deficit.

“If this goes to a runoff,” Laird told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “I think it’s going to be important to take attention away from all these negative ads and focus on things people really care about.”

He said that in walking door-to-door, “one of the big issues that has emerged is that people are really concerned about public education.”

Blakeslee said the issue that “came up over and over again” in his talks with voters was the fear that Democrats might end up with a veto-proof majority in the Legislature.

He said if and when he goes to the state Senate he wants to work on budget reform, including a spending cap and a rainy-day reserve.

The environment will remain an issue as well, Laird said.

The recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill led Blakeslee, 54, to defend what he called a “moderate” Republican record that included supporting limited drilling from an existing federal oil platform. The deal, which was initially supported by some Democrats and split the environmental community, collapsed when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support as oil fouled the Gulf.

Laird, 60, of Santa Cruz, had the support of environmental organizations as he spattered Blakeslee with oil in television ads and campaign mailers. He represented part of the northern half of the Senate district for six years, until he was termed out of the Assembly in 2008. He now teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Blakeslee said he is an environmentalist and that Laird has been distorting his record.

Republicans allied with business groups countered that electing Laird would bring Democrats closer to raising taxes as their solution to the state’s $19 billion budget deficit.

Democrats make up 41 percent of registered voters in the 15th Senate District. Republicans account for 34 percent of voters, while 20 percent of voters are decline-to-state voters. But the district has often elected Republicans like Maldonado, making it one of the Legislature’s few swing districts.