Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham has a solid lead over Republican Steve Pearce in a high-profile New Mexico gubernatorial race that has already seen millions of dollars spent by both candidates, a new Journal Poll found.
Fifty percent of proven, likely voters surveyed last week said they would vote for Lujan Grisham, while 43 percent said they would vote for Pearce. The remaining voters surveyed would not say which candidate they planned to vote for or were undecided.
“It’s still a competitive race, but when a candidate is at 50 percent, it means that her opponent is going to have to pick up all the remaining undecided voters and also peel away some supporters in order to win,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., which conducted the poll.
This year’s race for governor is wide open because incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office. She will step down at the end of the year.
Both Lujan Grisham and Pearce are members of the U.S. House who are forgoing re-election bids to run for governor. It’s believed to be the first time two sitting members of Congress have faced off for New Mexico governor in a general election.
Lujan Grisham, who lives in Albuquerque and was a state Cabinet secretary under three governors before running for Congress, won a bruising three-way primary election in June, with roughly two-thirds of the votes cast in the race.
However, she spent large amounts of money fending off attacks from Democratic rivals and as a result has less money in her campaign account than does Pearce, a retired oil field services company executive from Hobbs who was unopposed in the Republican primary.
Pearce had roughly $1.9 million in his campaign war chest, according to campaign reports filed last week, compared with $1.3 million for Lujan Grisham. However, Lujan Grisham has raised significantly more money than Pearce in recent months.
The Journal Poll found that Lujan Grisham had a significant lead over Pearce in the state’s north-central region, while Pearce held a similar advantage in the state’s more conservative east side.
But Lujan Grisham had a potentially key edge in the state’s largest city, as Albuquerque voters were more likely to vote for her – 53 percent to 41 percent – than for Pearce.
“For Pearce to win, he’s going to need to really hold his own in Albuquerque,” Sanderoff said.
Lujan Grisham also held a decisive advantage over Pearce among Hispanic voters, while Pearce had a narrow edge among Anglo voters. The sample sizes for other racial groups weren’t large enough to provide statistically meaningful numbers.
With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans in New Mexico, successful GOP candidates in statewide races have typically been moderate Republicans, Sanderoff said.
Pearce has sought to portray himself as a moderate in this year’s race, criticizing some Martinez administration policies and appealing to public school teachers in TV campaign ads.
However, voters who identified themselves as moderates were nearly twice as likely to say they would vote for Lujan Grisham than for Pearce – 63 percent to 32 percent.
Although both candidates enjoy high name recognition levels due to their time in Congress, the unpopularity of President Donald Trump among many New Mexico voters could be another advantage for Lujan Grisham’s campaign, Sanderoff said.
“This is a challenging political environment for Steve Pearce,” he said.
Whoever is elected governor in November will take the reins of a state suddenly flush with cash but still facing deeply rooted challenges.
Revenue estimates released last month by legislative and executive economists forecast the state will have $1.2 billion of “new” money – or revenue in excess of current spending – for the budget year starting in July 2019, due primarily to unprecedented oil production in southeastern New Mexico.
However, the state’s two large public retirement systems are both facing sustainability questions, and New Mexico could be on the hook for damages in a long-running water dispute with Texas.
In addition, the state has long had one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and the new governor will inherit a looming deadline to approve a plan that ensures that Native American, Hispanic and other at-risk students receive an adequate education after a judge ruled the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligations.
Lujan Grisham, who would be the state’s first Hispanic female Democratic elected governor, was the first candidate to enter the race in December 2016.
She has touted her state government experience on the campaign trail, saying it would allow her to hit the ground running as governor and make changes to the state’s public education system and minimum wage law.
For his part, Pearce has focused his message largely on job creation and schools. He has also sought to make inroads with voters in traditionally Democratic strongholds, such as Española and Bernalillo County’s South Valley.
The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 966 registered voters who cast ballots in the 2014 and 2016 general elections and said they were very likely to vote in this year’s election.
The poll was conducted Sept. 7-13. The voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.
All interviews were conducted by live, professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone.
Both cellphone numbers (69 percent) and landlines (31 percent) of proven general election voters were used.