ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Attorney General Gary King topped a field of five candidates to win the Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday, setting up a general election match-up with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
King, a former state legislator and son of former Gov. Bruce King, held more than a 10-point lead over his nearest competitor in early election returns. Research and Polling Inc. President Brian Sanderoff called the race for King shortly after 9 p.m.
“We worked hard to get here, but I think the real hard part of the race starts tomorrow morning,” King told supporters at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Albuquerque.
“We as Democrats will work together for the Democratic principles in New Mexico,” King said. “We are going to stand together for families, we’re going to stand together for the working people in the state of New Mexico, we’re going to stand together for teachers and education. … This is the battle for the future of New Mexico right now.”
Martinez was quick to take aim at her general election challenger, saying King has a “record of non-accomplishment” as attorney general and calling him an “exceptionally flawed” candidate in a news release issued soon after the Democratic contest was called.
Martinez, a former district attorney from Las Cruces who was elected the state’s first female governor in 2010 and also became the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, was unopposed for the Republican nomination. She is seeking a second term.
She addressed supporters in Albuquerque’s South Valley, touting a record of accomplishments as governor and charging that Democrats intend to turn back the clock on her efforts.
“Tonight’s results make clear what this race is really all about: The past versus the future; moving forward or taking our state backwards,” Martinez said without mentioning King by name.
King bested a better-funded field of Democratic opponents, including entrepreneur Alan Webber of Santa Fe; former government administrator Lawrence Rael of Albuquerque; state Sen. Howie Morales of Silver City; and state Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque. They trailed him in that order as the vote count continued late Tuesday.
Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Debra Haaland and Republican Lt. Gov. John Sanchez each were unopposed for their parties’ nomination and will join King and Martinez on the gubernatorial tickets for the fall campaign.
King now enters a gubernatorial general election field that Democrats around that U.S. largely have written off.
In April, Democratic Governors Association chairman Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, said New Mexico would not be among the states in which the group invests money in its national effort to oust incumbent Republican governors.
Political pundits have said that Tuesday’s primary win could give a fundraising boost to the winner, as many donors who took a wait-and-see approach to the primary candidates may now consider opening their checkbooks to aid the party’s gubernatorial nominee.
Sanderoff, however, said it’s going to be an uphill climb for King.
“He’s got a tremendous challenge ahead of him,” Sanderoff said. “… The first thing he’s going to have to do is to try to demonstrate to traditional Democratic Party contributors that he can run a competitive race.”
Meanwhile, national Republican groups have been eager to throw their support behind Martinez.
Republican Governors Association chairman Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, issued a statement late Tuesday praising Martinez’s work in the state and pledging the group’s support.
And the Martinez general election campaign appears to be already in gear.
The Republican governor plans to make campaign stops today in some northern New Mexico Democratic strongholds, including Las Vegas and Española.
A quiet race
Tuesday’s primary election capped off a Democratic gubernatorial race that had been largely uneventful since mid-2012, when King became the first Democrat to enter the race.
The field of five Democrats ran their campaigns largely on personality while they agreed nearly across-the-board on policy issues. The campaign was devoid of infighting among the Democrats as each candidate directed his or her attacks toward Martinez in an effort to demonstrate to Democratic voters an ability to aggressively challenge the Republican incumbent.
The low-profile Democratic governor’s campaign seemed to result in what pundits projected would be a low-turnout primary election.
Early vote returns Tuesday, with 54 percent of the precincts counted, showed an average turnout of nearly 20 percent of registered voters. Historically, New Mexico primaries draw turnouts around 25 percent.
King’s win on Tuesday came after his last place finish in March at the Democrats’ pre-primary nominating convention. King won about 11 percent of the delegate vote at the convention, falling short the required 20 percent vote to qualify for the primary ballot. But he later earned a spot on the ballot with additional voter petition signatures.
Political pundits say King’s statewide name recognition gave him advantage in the race leading to Tuesday’s vote over lesser-known opponents.
“Gary King’s name recognition (with voters) contributed strongly to his victory tonight,” Sanderoff said. “King had a clear advantage, as evidenced by being up in the polls before he started his TV” advertising.
King appeared to struggle with fundraising his primary campaign, trailing behind several other Democrats in the race. King drummed up about $476,000 for his gubernatorial bid since October. King’s personal loans to his campaign – about $295,000 – accounted for more than half of his fundraising during that period.
Other Democrats during the same period raised significantly more money but were unable to convert that cash into primary votes.
Martinez during that same period raised more than $2.4 million in campaign contributions since October.
The Republican governor, though unopposed in the primary, has used that cash to play an active role in the Democratic primary, airing a steady stream of TV ads that bolstered her record and at times attacked the field of
Democrats vying to challenge her.
While the Democrats largely spent the cash they raised in the final weeks of the primary campaign, Martinez late last month reported a campaign war chest of $4.3 million in the bank in preparation of the general election.