SANTA FE – On the surface, the focus of the ongoing National Governors Association summer meeting in New Mexico’s capital city is on policy issues like foreign trade, the outdoor recreation economy and infrastructure needs.
But there’s an undercurrent of politics at play, too, with a high-stakes election cycle on the horizon that includes 36 gubernatorial races – including one in New Mexico.
That fact is not lost on governors, with Democratic governors presenting themselves Friday as a bulwark against President Donald Trump, specifically on the issues of health care, civil liberties and the economy.
“People are going to be crawling over broken glass to vote for Democratic governors this year,” predicted Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, during a Friday news conference at a downtown Santa Fe hotel.
There are now 33 Republican governors and 16 Democratic governors, with Alaska’s governor a registered independent. This year, voters in 36 states will elect governors, and Democrats are hoping to add more governors’ mansions to their tally.
This year’s elections will also determine which governors get to preside over the once-per-decade task of redistricting, which could impact future congressional and legislative races.
Democrats insisted their aim in winning back more state-level control isn’t too connected to the drawing of new district boundary lines after the 2020 census, but acknowledged they are seeking more sway after losing governorships in 2010 and 2014.
Republicans, meanwhile, are looking to maintain their edge in governors, and the Republican Governors Association raised more than $26 million during the last quarter to assist GOP candidates, according to the online news site Politico.
New Mexico is high on Democrats’ wish list, as two-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
Two members of the state’s congressional delegation, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, are forgoing re-election bids to run for governor and will face off against each other in the November general election.
Inslee, in response to a question, described New Mexico as a “very high priority” for the DGA. He also said voters can’t trust Pearce to safeguard health care access in a state in which about 40 percent of the population is enrolled in Medicaid.
“For a lot of reasons, we’re very confident of our chances in New Mexico, and we love our candidate,” Inslee told reporters.
In response, a Pearce campaign spokesman cited Lujan Grisham’s past ties to a company that has a state contract to help run New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool.
“Steve Pearce will make sure that every New Mexican has a job and can afford the health care they need,” campaign spokesman Kevin Sheridan said.
Pearce was also slated to be in Santa Fe on Friday for the opening of the Republican Party of Santa Fe County’s election headquarters. He is planning to attend a fund-raiser hosted by Tennesee Gov. Bill Haslam and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin as part of his trip.
Political partisanship also flared outside the NGA meeting Friday, as about 200 protesters marched from the Roundhouse to the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in hopes of getting the governors’ attention.
At least two Democratic state legislators and representatives from more than 30 organizations – including New Mexico Black Lives Matter and New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence – attended the rally, with speakers addressing national and local topics such as immigrants’ rights, health care access for all, climate change, reproductive rights and ending mass incarceration.
“Politicians, listen to us clearly,” said Margarita Hibbs, an activist from groups including New Mexico Poor People’s Campaign and New Mexico Women’s March. “We see you who aid and abet these immoral policies at the state and federal level. Whether you are on the right, center or left, we are not playing anymore.”
The protesters were not allowed inside the convention center, but they delivered a packet of letters to NGA officials. Santa Fe civil rights attorney Jeff Haas, the event’s co-organizer, told the Journal the letters were for all the governors attending the conference, asking them to push for “progressive” laws. He later called on them to make policies “for the people, not the 1 percent.”
The protesters, many of whom carried large posters and banners, were escorted along some of the march route by New Mexico State Police officers on motorcycles. There were no reported arrests or disturbances.
Journal staff writer Megan Bennett contributed to this report.