Silicon Valley voters in the 15th state Senate district may well have a sense of deja vu as they mark their ballots Nov. 6.
The same two candidates, Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Coto, who were on their June primary ballot are also on the ballot in November. It's a quirk of California's new open primary: The "top-two" finishers compete in the general election regardless of party affiliation, and Beall and Coto were the only contenders for the seat.
But Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative and congressional races, said voters will see a more competitive race than they would with a Republican on the ballot in the heavily Democratic district that stretches from San Jose to Los Gatos, Saratoga and Cupertino.
"If it were a Republican versus a Democrat, it would be no contest," Hoffenblum said. "Jim Beall would be picking the color of his office rug."
Instead, Beall, considered the more liberal candidate backed primarily by public employee unions, faces a rematch against Coto, a largely business-backed candidate recommended by Santa Clara County Republicans.
Beall, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose councilman who claims the official endorsement of the state Democratic Party, finished with 55.5 percent to Coto's 44.5 percent of the vote in the primary. But Hoffenblum said a candidate can't take too much comfort in that.
"It'll be a totally different election," Hoffenblum said. "Quite often someone will do well in the primary and not win in November. Each side looks at the figures, regroups and says, 'Let's try something else.' "
Voters like Jason Chittavong, 30, a caterer and bartender attending San Jose City College, are just tuning in. And after watching Beall and Coto debate at his college last week, he remained undecided.
"Joe Coto is focused a lot on education, unemployment," Chittavong said, noting that Beall "seems to have more of a solution to certain departments not doing their job. I like them both. They're just two different styles."
Beall has hardly taken the race for granted, waging an aggressive campaign accusing his rival of violating campaign laws and painting him as beholden to corporate interests. Beall has blasted Coto with hits, citing a San Diego pay-to-play scandal involving a contractor Coto worked for and questioning his stewardship of school finances when he served as East Side Union High School District superintendent.
Coto, in response to Beall's bare-knuckle jabs, has said he played no role in the San Diego pay-to-play scandal and was lauded for improving student performance at East Side. He accuses Beall of being tied to special interests as well, chiefly public employee unions.
"I'm disappointed with all this negativism," Coto said, dismissing his rival as a "career politician." "It's so dishonest, just a smear campaign."
Beall has led in fundraising, collecting nearly $200,000 from July 1 through September and more than $414,000 since the start of the year. Coto has raised a little more than $71,000 from July 1 through September and almost $184,000 since the start of the year. He received substantial contributions exceeding $300,000 from independent political committees representing insurance and other companies during the primary, but there has been little independent spending on the November race.
Coto is campaigning as a Democrat with a history of reaching out to Republicans for consensus and focusing his agenda on improving education, where he spent most of his career.
"My record in Sacramento was always to reach out to Republicans," Coto said. "I continue to focus on the issue I believe is most important: education."
Beall is campaigning as a representative who stands up to corporate interests and who knows how to work the levers of government to local residents' advantage to champion transportation and public transit projects and programs to help the poor.
"The social justice value has driven me in public life," Beall said. "In the state, I've been a strong voice for getting things done."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
15th state Senate district candidates:
Occupation: Former Assemblyman
Career: California Assemblyman, 23rd District, 2004-2010; East Side Union High School District superintendent, 1989-2003; Oakland Unified School District superintendent, 1984-1988; Oakland City Council, 1973-1977; Oakland Unified School District, social studies teacher, 1965-1973
Education: Bachelor's degree, California Western University; master's degree, management, University of Phoenix
Birthplace: Miami, Ariz.
Home: San Jose
Family: His wife, Camille; two daughters
Positions: Supports Proposition 38 tax increase backed by civil rights lawyer Molly Munger as more effective for schools than Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax measure; opposes Proposition 32 ban on automatic paycheck deductions by unions and corporations for political use; supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights; no position on San Jose minimum wage Measure D.
Occupation: California Assemblyman, 24th District
Career: California Assembly, 2006-present; Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, 1995-2006; San Jose City Council, 1981-1994
Education: Bachelor's degree, political science, San Jose State
Birthplace: San Jose
Home: San Jose
Family: His wife, Pat; two stepsons
Positions: Supports Proposition 30 tax increase backed by Brown over Munger's Proposition 38 as more effective for schools; opposes Proposition 32 ban on automatic paycheck deductions by unions and corporations for political use; supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights; supports San Jose minimum wage Measure D.