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The stakes were high, with President Barack Obama and Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman getting involved.

But in the end, state Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said today, his party's defeat in a key Central Coast Senate election Tuesday boiled down to one thing: timing.

"I think the die was cast with the special election date being set in the middle of summer rather than November," Steinberg said after Democrat John Laird lost to Republican Sam Blakeslee.

Laird, a former Santa Cruz area assemblyman, agreed. He disputed the GOP version of Blakeslee's victory in the 15th Senate District as a no-new-taxes and cut-spending-only mandate.

"The low turnout of an August election was just too high a hurdle," said Laird, who called Blakeslee, a San Luis Obispo assemblyman, at midnight to congratulate him. With all precincts partially or fully reporting, Blakeslee topped Laird 49 percent to 44 percent.

Laird said he was hurt because schools and colleges are on summer vacation, cutting into the Democratic voter base. In addition, he said, in Santa Cruz County -- his home turf -- people had to drive several miles or more to get to one of seven precincts.

Democrats would benefit by getting more loyalists to vote by mail rather than relying on them to turn out on obscure election days, Laird said, adding that Blakeslee benefited a lot from habitual vote-by-mail supporters in his base in the southern part of the district.

Had Laird won, Democrats would have been one seat shy of a two-thirds majority in the state Senate. That could have provided critical edge to pass a budget package or a tax in that house.

The race took on a bigger dimension when Obama loaned his name to a Laird campaign mailer and Whitman stumped for Blakeslee as the race drew to a close.

The 15th Senate district seat was held by Republican Abel Maldonado until he was confirmed after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him lieutenant governor.

After a protracted battle by Democrats who opposed confirming Maldonado, Schwarzenegger set the special election to replace Maldonado for June 22, two weeks after the June primary.

Blakeslee was the top vote-getter in June, with 49 percent compared to Laird's 42 percent, but he didn't get the majority needed to avoid Tuesday's runoff.

Democrats thought they had a fighting shot at winning the district, and Steinberg mustered volunteers and campaign consultants. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district -- 41 percent to 34 percent -- and Democrats were emboldened by Obama's decisive victory in the district in 2008.

But Republicans outspent Democrats 2-to-1, Steinberg said, and while Laird did better, Democrats fell short of the turnout they needed.

Steinberg said he's looking ahead at the "big picture." That means keeping the Democrats' 25-member majority in November, he said. And it means making another stab at trying to capture another GOP-held seat in the 12th Senate District, which stretches from the Salinas Valley to the Central Valley.

In the meantime, Steinberg said, "I have congratulated Sam Blakeslee, and we're going to welcome him to the Senate."



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