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Election will transform political landscape in New Mexico

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jeff Apodaca, Joe Cervantes and Michelle Lujan Grisham

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A critical election year in New Mexico – one that could establish the political pecking order for years – will begin taking shape Tuesday as voters choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for two open congressional seats, governor and other state offices.

It’s the kind of shake-up that could launch new political careers, or interrupt others.

Two members of Congress – Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce – are leaving safe seats to try for the Governor’s Office, where the Republican incumbent, Susana Martinez, cannot run because of term limits.

And voters have a broad mix of political veterans and newcomers to choose from as they weigh the nominees to succeed Lujan Grisham and Pearce in the U.S. House.

“Vacant congressional seats don’t come up that often,” pollster Brian Sanderoff said, “and when they do, the winner usually stays there for as long as he or she would like.”

In the governor’s race, meanwhile, Lujan Grisham faces intense competition just to win the nomination. Pearce is unopposed on the Republican side.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jeff Apodaca, a former media executive, and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a lawyer, are campaigning aggressively in the final days – questioning Lujan Grisham’s ties to a company that’s won state contracts to help run New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool.

Lujan Grisham co-founded the business, Delta Consulting, in 2008 and shared in its profits, before divesting herself from the company last year.

In any case, she’s widely seen as the front-runner in the three-way race.

A Journal Poll showed Lujan Grisham with a commanding lead in late May, capturing support from 57 percent of likely Democratic voters, according to the scientific survey by Research & Polling Inc.

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said “identity politics” and demographic factors are at play in the primary races. Lujan Grisham’s status as the only woman in the Democratic field for governor, for example, helps set her apart.

“I think she has the edge,” Atkeson said.

The Democratic race may also set a new disclosure standard. Under pressure from her opponents, Lujan Grisham released her tax returns for the past five years.

“It might set a new precedent that all statewide candidates are expected to disclose their tax returns for transparency, which is a relatively new thing in New Mexico,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a UNM professor of political science.

Democratic turnout

Democratic turnout has been strong, compared to past turnout. That may be driven by the vigorous campaigns for the nomination in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, the Governor’s Office, land commissioner and lieutenant governor – all races where there’s no incumbent seeking re-election.

There are also contested primaries for some House seats, the Public Regulation Commission and auditor. Races for sheriff, County Commission and other local offices round out the ballot.

More than 66,000 Democrats had cast early and absentee votes through the end of Friday, already outpacing the total early and absentee votes cast in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial race.

About 31,000 Republicans and about 220 Libertarians have also cast ballots. There are no contested primary races for Libertarians.

Only voters registered with a major party may vote in New Mexico’s primary system.

The disproportionate share of Democrats in the vote total reflects the intense competition for the nomination in high-profile races, political observers say.

“Lots of people are vying for the Democratic nomination because they sense 2018 will be a good year for the Democrats due to historical trends,” said Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.

The party in control of the White House – the GOP, in this case – usually loses seats at midterm elections.

Early voting ended Saturday. Polls open for Election Day at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Congress

The race to represent Albuquerque in Congress is particularly intense. Three Democrats have emerged as the top tier: former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Deb Haaland, former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and retired law professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Independent political groups have flooded the airwaves and mailboxes with negative ads – a sign that outsiders believe whoever seizes the Democratic nomination will be favored to win in the general election this fall.

Democrats have held the 1st Congressional District since the 2008 election.

But the primary appears to be incredibly close.

Martinez had support from 22 percent of likely, reliable voters in the Journal Poll, followed by Haaland at 19 percent and Sedillo Lopez at 17 percent. Twenty-nine percent were undecided.

Since then, however, one candidate, Pat Davis, dropped out and endorsed Haaland, who, if elected, would become the first Native American woman to win a seat in Congress.

In the 2nd Congressional District, meanwhile, the winner of the Republican primary is likely to be favored in the fall, though a Democrat won the seat 10 years ago, when Barack Obama was elected president.

The top GOP candidates are state Rep. Yvette Herrell, former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman and Gavin Clarkson, who served briefly in the Interior Department under President Donald Trump.

Democrats are choosing between Coast Guard veteran Madeline Hildebrandt and water attorney Xochitl Torres Small.

The race may attract national attention in the fall as part of Democrats’ efforts to win back a majority in the U.S. House.

Republicans, nonetheless, have held the seat for all but two years since 1981.

The open seats are part of a national trend, Sanchez said.

Whether due to polarization or the amount of fundraising pressure in a position that’s on the ballot every two years, there’s been a national wave of incumbents stepping down, Sanchez said.

In New Mexico’s case, it will mean a loss of seniority in a state that depends heavily on the federal government.

“Moving forward,” Sanchez said, “we’ll have two rookies in Congress.”

Break from ads

Tuesday’s election will bring a respite from the incessant campaign ads. But it will be brief, as the candidates turn their eyes to the Nov. 6 general election.

“We should have a recess – a break in the action – after the primary for a couple of months before things totally heat up,” Sanderoff said. But “as the years pass, the recess gets shorter and shorter. There have been examples where things pick up right after the primary.”

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