The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is spilling into a special election along California's central coast that could help shift the balance of power in the state Senate.
Democrats are playing up Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee's past as a research scientist and strategic planner for Exxon Mobile. He supported a limited expansion of offshore oil drilling until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the plan dead in the wake of the Gulf disaster.
Republicans warn that electing former Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz would bring Democrats within a single vote of the two-thirds majority they need to pass budget bills and tax increases through the Senate.
If neither wins more than 50 percent of the vote, they will meet again in an Aug. 17 runoff. Two other candidates, a Libertarian and independent, also would advance.
The winner will represent a district that stretches along the middle of the California coast from Santa Clara County south of San Francisco to northern Santa Barbara County.
The seat opened in April when the Legislature confirmed former state senator Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria as lieutenant governor.
The 15th Senate District is of the few swing districts in the 40-member chamber, meaning the race is up for grabs. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 41 percent to 34 percent, while decline-to-state voters account for 20 percent.
Despite the slight Democratic edge, voters have often have supported Republicans, including Maldonado.
The Gulf of Mexico disaster has provided an emotional backdrop to what otherwise might have been an obscure summer election just two weeks after the June 8 statewide primary. Residents of the district's five coastal counties remember a devastating 1969 blowout at an oil well off the Santa Barbara County coast that fouled miles of shoreline.
"It's one of the most beautiful and pristine coasts in the world. If we had a spill like in the Gulf, it would just ruin it," said Deirdre Des Jardins, a Sierra Club activist who lives in the mountains above Santa Cruz, north of the dramatic Big Sur coastline.
Blakeslee's opponents have seized on his time at Exxon, where he worked from 1989 through 1995, and his campaign contributions from oil companies. Blakeslee's campaign accounts showed more than $20,000 in oil company contributions over the past 12 months. Oil companies also contribute to JOBSPAC, the independent business committee that is campaigning for Blakeslee.
Last year, he supported a proposal by Plains Exploration & Production Co., known as PXP, to drill from an existing platform into an oil field in state-regulated waters off the coast of Santa Barbara County. Schwarzenegger initially supported the plan but backed away after the Gulf spill.
"The guy's got oil all over his hands," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political science professor who also lives in the Senate district. "You can't run from that."
Yet Blakeslee's stance on offshore drilling has been more nuanced.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, initially joined Blakeslee in supporting what became known as the Tranquillon Ridge drilling project. The unusual cooperation came after Houston-based PXP promised to end all its drilling operations by 2022 and donate land and money to environmental causes in exchange for the additional drilling.
Blakeslee, who lives in San Luis Obispo, kept pushing for the project long after most of the environmental groups withdrew their support. He also backed failed legislation last year that would have sidestepped the State Lands Commission's refusal to grant offshore oil leases.
In a 2008 Assembly floor speech, Blakeslee recalled that as an Exxon employee he witnessed "the terrible environmental degradation" created by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He was the sole Assembly Republican to support continuing the federal moratorium on drilling off California's coast.
"I'm someone who's known as the most environmental Republican in the state Legislature, bar none," Blakeslee said in a telephone interview. "I've always been someone who's looked up to Teddy Roosevelt and believed you can be very protective of the economy and the environment."
Blakeslee, 54, represented the southern half of the Senate district for nearly six years. He accused his opponents of trying to capitalize on an environmental tragedy.
Laird, 60, represented a northern part of the Senate district for six years in the Assembly until he was termed out in 2008. He is now an environmental studies lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Business organizations have poured nearly $1.2 million into independent expenditures supporting Blakeslee and opposing Laird, most of it in the two weeks before the election. The Republican nominee for governor, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, held a recent fundraiser for Blakeslee.
Combined spending in the race, including independent expenditures, has already topped $2 million.
The attention reflects business groups' concern that Democrats who control the Legislature will increase taxes this summer to help close the state's $19 billion budget deficit, said John Kabateck, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business-California.
Electing another Republican would make it more difficult for Democrats to reach the two-thirds vote threshold they need to raise taxes.
Laird embraces Republicans' warnings that his election would move Senate Democrats within one vote of approving new taxes and the state budget without GOP support.
"What they are trying to play up plays right into voters' anger," Laird said in a telephone interview. "The reason not to elect me is because it might soften the gridlock? It's exactly the gridlock that's making voters crazy right now."
He said the alternative to higher taxes is deeper cuts to education, which are opposed by many of the district's residents.
He has the backing of environmental groups for his opposition to offshore oil drilling, and a union that represents public employees, health care and service workers has independently put more than $100,000 into the race supporting Laird.
The importance of the election is reflected even in its timing. Democrats wanted the contest consolidated with the November election, believing more Democrats would go to the polls then. They backed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to delay the election.
Schwarzenegger set the summertime special election dates, which Democratic legislative leaders say ensure a low voter turnout that would favor Republicans.
The special election is projected to cost the five counties a combined $3.5 million.