Wide open races could shape NM’s political landscape for years

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s shaping up to be a wild election season in New Mexico – with the potential to shake up the state’s political establishment for years to come.

Over the next year and a half, voters can expect wide open races for governor and two seats in Congress – at least one of which is already drawing national interest as Democrats try to win back control of the U.S. House.

And New Mexico could also see openings for state land commissioner and a host of legislative seats depending on who launches campaigns for governor and Congress.

It’s the kind of mad scramble that reminds some analysts of the 2008 free-for-all triggered by the retirement of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, when all three of the state’s U.S. representatives ran to succeed the longtime Republican senator.

Rep. Steve Pearce
Michelle Lujan Grisham

Last Monday, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, announced he is running for governor rather than seek re-election next year. One of his colleagues in Congress, Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, made a similar decision in December, setting up the possibility that they’ll face each other next November with the Governor’s Office at stake.

Voters will begin narrowing the field in June next year, when Democrats and Republicans choose their nominees.

“It could shape New Mexico politics for a long time,” said Brian Sanderoff, a political analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc.

Adding to the election’s importance is New Mexico’s reliance on the federal government for spending on health care, military bases and national laboratories. Electing two new members of Congress, of course, will mean less seniority in the House.

“It’s a big watershed election for us,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico professor in political science. “Whoever we put into office, they’re going to have a lot of expectations from New Mexico to be able to get things done.”

Fight for 2nd District job

The race to succeed Pearce in the 2nd Congressional District – one of the largest in the country – may attract national spending and interest.

That’s true for any open seat, of course, but in this case, Democrats are looking for every opportunity to capitalize on President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings to help win a majority in the U.S. House.

Pearce has kept the seat in Republican hands since the 2010 election, when he won it back from Harry Teague, a Hobbs Democrat and self-made millionaire in the oil business.

Teague is the only Democrat to have won the seat in the past 37 years, and he had it for only one two-year term – when it was open because Pearce unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008.

The 2nd Congressional District covers the southern half of New Mexico. It includes the conservative-leaning oil patch in the southeast part of the state and the more liberal Las Cruces area, north of El Paso.

It’s the most heavily Hispanic of New Mexico’s three congressional districts, according to redistricting data compiled by Research & Polling Inc. after the 2010 Census.

In general, the demographics look friendly to Democrats, but the “Latino vote has underperformed substantially,” Sanchez, the UNM professor, said.

Some Democrats, therefore, see a strong Latino candidate as their best bet to win the district, he said.

But others believe a moderate or conservative Democrat from the southeast part of the state – someone like Teague – is the better option.

Pearce, in any case, has routinely racked up decisive victories, and he told reporters this week that he’s confident the district will remain in Republican hands, assuming he’s at the top of the ticket as the GOP nominee for governor.

Sanderoff said it would probably take a “unique circumstance” for a Democrat to win back the 2nd Congressional District next year.

Republicans in tough position

The national environment, meanwhile, may favor Democrats. The party in control of the White House – Republicans in this case – usually loses seats in mid-term elections.

That could put Republican candidates across all races in a tough position, Sanchez said. They’ll want to appeal to conservative voters, of course, but may not necessarily brand themselves as Trump allies.

“This is really uncharted territory – thinking about what type of Republican will emerge,” Sanchez said.

With Pearce just having announced his decision not to seek re-election, the race hasn’t taken shape yet.

State Rep. Yvette Herrell, an Alamogordo resident who works in real estate investment, announced she’s running. Other potential candidates in the Republican primary include State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, who’s also weighing a run for re-election or a campaign for the Public Regulation Commission, and state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a farmer from Roswell.

Already in the race on the Democratic side are David Baake, an attorney from Las Cruces; Tony Martinez, who retired after a career in the Army and pharmaceutical industry; Mad Hildebrandt, an adjunct college instructor from Socorro; and Ronald Fitzherbert, the risk and compliance manager at a Las Cruces health clinic.

More candidates, of course, may yet emerge on both sides.

Succeeding Lujan Grisham

In the 1st Congressional District, seven Democrats and two Republicans have already announced campaigns.

The district is based in Albuquerque and has been held by Democrats since 2008 – the year Domenici’s retirement roiled New Mexico’s political scene.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, won each of the last three elections by margins of at least 17 percentage points.

The Democratic candidates so far are Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis; former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Debra Haaland; Damon Martinez, former U.S. attorney for New Mexico; Albuquerque attorney Damian Lara; Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, former associate dean of the University of New Mexico Law School; Albuquerque physicist Dennis Dinge; and Edgewood Town Councilor John Abrams.

The Republican candidates are former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones and immigration attorney Michael Hendricks.

Race to be next governor

The field of candidates for governor is much smaller.

Democratic candidates include Lujan Grisham, former media executive Jeff Apodaca of Albuquerque, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and Peter DeBenedittis, an anti-alcohol activist from Santa Fe.

Pearce is the only Republican in the race so far.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican from Las Cruces, cannot run next year because of term limits.

Lots of campaign cash

The State Auditor’s Office could also end up on the ballot. Incumbent Tim Keller, a Democrat, is running for mayor in Albuquerque this year, and, if he wins, the governor would appoint a replacement who would serve through the 2018 general election.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, will be up for re-election next year. He decided against a run for governor.

“We’ll be having some pretty high-profile races with candidates who don’t have statewide name recognition,” Sanderoff, the pollster, said in an interview. “They’ll have to spend more money to get into the hearts and minds of the voters.”

The combination of three open seats is likely to result in extra campaign spending, which, in turn, could boost voter turnout, analysts say.

And the stakes are high. People elected to the U.S. House in New Mexico often stick around for a decade or more – leaving Congress only upon retirement, death or to run for another office.

The Governor’s Office is even more attractive. There are, of course, only 50 of them in the entire country.

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