History gives Democrat edge in governor race

Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, and Steve Pearce, right.

SANTA FE – If recent New Mexico political history is any indication, Michelle Lujan Grisham and other Democrats could have the wind at their backs in this year’s general election.

That’s because the state’s last seven gubernatorial elections – stretching back to 1990 – have been won by a candidate from the opposite major political party of the sitting president.

Brian Sanderoff, a longtime New Mexico political observer, said there’s a reason for that, as voters often tend to punish the president’s political party in midterm elections, which happen to be when New Mexico gubernatorial elections take place.

“It’s more than a coincidence that for seven consecutive gubernatorial races the winning candidate was from the opposite party of the president,” said Sanderoff, who’s also the president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc. “The mood of the nation influences gubernatorial races and state legislative races.”

While this year’s election outcomes are far from guaranteed, the prevailing mood appears likely to benefit Democrats.

That could especially be the case in New Mexico, as President Donald Trump is not a widely popular political figure in the state and outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez’s approval rating has dropped.

It’s a sharp contrast to four years ago, when Republicans, buoyed by a more popular Martinez and voter fatigue with Democratic President Barack Obama, won a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years. GOP candidates also won statewide races in 2014 for secretary of state and land commissioner.

In fact, both Martinez’s election as governor in 2010 – and her re-election in 2014 – occurred with Obama in the Oval Office.

Republicans also made big gains in the state House in those two election cycles, picking up a net of eight seats in the 70-member chamber in 2010 and an additional four seats in 2014.

“In the last gubernatorial election cycle, New Mexico Republican candidates performed incredibly well, partially due to the overall conservative mood of the state and nation,” Sanderoff said. “Now the political winds have shifted and with a Republican in the White House, the Democratic candidates in New Mexico may be the beneficiaries.”

Democrats reclaimed control of the state House in the 2016 election cycle – Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 8 percentage points in New Mexico in that year’s election – and are hoping to build on their current 38-32 majority in this year’s general election.

Among other seats, Democrats are eyeing two Albuquerque-area House seats held by Republicans who are not seeking re-election – outgoing House Minority Leader Nate Gentry and Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes.

They’re also trying to win back the Governor’s Office, with Lujan Grisham trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Steve Pearce. Both candidates are currently members of Congress who are forgoing re-election bids to run for governor.

Despite the favorable election climate, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said the party isn’t taking anything for granted and has launched a grass-roots effort to rally voter interest.

“We need to be able to turn out voters statewide,” Elliston told the Journal. “We’re not waiting for a blue wave to come sweep us somewhere.”

For his part, state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi acknowledged that the party that controls the White House typically has a more difficult time in midterm elections nationally.

But he said trends that might be affecting elections in states such as California and New Jersey do not necessarily apply in New Mexico, where Democrats hold a sizable edge in voter registration.

“Republicans in New Mexico always face tough elections, but we also win a lot,” Cangiolosi told the Journal.

He also said the key to success for GOP candidates like Pearce is focusing on issues that affect the day-to-day lives of New Mexicans, such as jobs, public safety and the state’s public schools.

However, Democrats are also keying on some of those same issues, with party leaders claiming voter enthusiasm is trending up for the Nov. 6 general election – at least in part due to a president who won’t be on the ballot himself.

“I think a lot of people really started to be engaged in January 2017 and they’re still fighting mad,” Elliston said, referring to the date of Trump’s inauguration.