CA-Senate Special: Who Shows Up?

Today's special election for California's Senate will help determine the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans for purposes of writing the budget over the next couple of years. But, no one knows who will vote in this oddly timed race.
by | June 22, 2010

Today, we'll find out which conservative Republican will be the next U.S. senator from Utah and which underdog Democrat will be the party's Senate nominee in North Carolina. We'll also find out just how large Nikki Haley's runoff victory will be in South Carolina. But, I'd say that the most consequential race is a special election for state Senate in California's 15th District.

This is the seat that previously was held by Abel Maldonado, who Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named lieutenant governor earlier this year (Maldonado is the Republican nominee for a full-term). If Democrat John Laird wins, the victory would pull his party within one seat of having the supermajority in the California Senate needed to pass the budget without Republican support under the state's two-thirds rule.

While it seems unlikely that Democrats will gain the seats in November they need to have supermajorities in both the House and Senate (if the 2006 and 2008 elections didn't give Democrats the wins they need, why would we expect it this year?), this isn't a matter of either/or. Every seat Democrats win reduces the number of Republicans they need to find an accord on the budget.

On the other hand, if Republican Sam Blakeslee wins tomorrow, Republicans actually will have a stronger hand than they did before Maldonado left. Blakeslee, who currently serves as the Assembly's Republican leader, is less likely to stray from the rest of his party than Maldonado. The winner will serve through 2012.

The 15th District has more Democrats than Republicans, but it also has a long tradition of electing moderate Republicans. In a state with notoriously few swing seats, this is one of them.

But, you wouldn't know that from looking at Laird and Blakeslee. Laird, a former member of the Assembly, is a fairly liberal Democratic from Santa Cruz County, the most Democratic part of the district. Blakeslee is a fairly conservative Republican from San Luis Obispo County, the most Republican part of the district.

Laird hopes that the race will end up as a referendum on oil spill politics. In this coastal district, he's been highlighting Blakeslee's support for some offshore drilling and his former job with Exxon. Blakeslee hopes the race will be a referendum on everything that's wrong with Sacramento. Laird's former role as Budget Committee chairman isn't doing him any favors.

With a conventional Democrat facing a conventional Republican in a competitive district, the key question is who bothers to vote in this irregularly timed election. And, that's actually been the most interesting source of controversy.

County officials wanted this race to coincide with the November general election because that timing would have saved them money. Democrats wanted that too because they thought it would help their chances of winning the seat. But, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided that the race would go forward now, hoping (apparently, anyway) that such a move would help Republicans hold the seat.

To get a sense of the turnout dynamics in play, I looked at Maldonado's last two campaigns. The 15th District includes all or part of five different counties. In 2008, Maldonado won comfortably against independent Jim Fitzgerald in all five of them. The column on the far right shows the percentage of the overall vote from each county.

 California Senate 15th District 2008

Interestingly, Fitzgerald is running again in tomorrow's election along with a Libertarian candidate. While his relatively strong showing in 2008 was largely a product of the absence of a Democrat on the ballot, his presence this time around is notable because if no candidate breaks 50% today there will be an August 17 general election.

Note that I didn't call the August 17 race a "runoff." That's because all of the candidates advance to the August 17 race if no one gets a majority today. No, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

In 2004, Maldonado had a tougher race. He squared off with Democrat Peg Pinard, as well as a Green Party candidate. From this race, you get a better sense of the different partisan inclinations of the different portions of the district.

San Luis Obispo County is the large Republican bastion. Pinard was a County Commissioner from San Luis Obispo and she still couldn't stop Maldonado from winning comfortably there. Democrats do much better in Monterey County and Santa Cruz County:

California Senate 15th District 2004

What's striking to me, though, is the turnout by county. In two different elections (albeit both presidential elections), the proportion of the vote from each county is almost exactly the same. They're all within half a percentage point.

If the numbers look different tonight -- if, say, San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County make up a substantially larger share of the vote -- that will be a sign that Schwarzenegger's thinking was correct. Of course, we won't actually be able to make the right comparison until we see what turnout is like in November.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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