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Journal Poll: Democrat leads in Supreme Court race

Gary Clingman, left, and Michael Vigil

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After a rare Republican breakthrough two years ago in a New Mexico Supreme Court race, a Democratic candidate is on track to defeat his GOP rival in this year’s race for the state’s highest court, a new Journal Poll found.

Democrat Michael Vigil held a comfortable lead over Republican Gary Clingman, as 53 percent of likely general election voters surveyed this week said they would vote for Vigil – or had already voted for him – while 37 percent said they favored Clingman.

The remaining voters surveyed were either undecided or would not say which candidate they supported.

Vigil, a Santa Fe native who has been a state Court of Appeals judge since 2003, is making his second bid for a seat on the state Supreme Court. He lost in 2016 to Republican Judith Nakamura by a roughly 30,000-vote margin in a race in which more than 762,000 New Mexicans voted.

With her 2016 electoral victory, Nakamura became the first Republican elected to the Supreme Court in New Mexico since 1980. She was also the first female Republican to win election as a Supreme Court justice.

However, Nakamura’s victory was likely due at least in part to her background as both a longtime Metro Court judge and a District Court judge in Albuquerque, said Brian Sanderoff, the president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., which conducted the poll.

In contrast, Clingman had been a state District Court judge in Hobbs for more than 20 years before being appointed to the Supreme Court in April by outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez.

Sanderoff said Vigil’s advantage this year is likely due to his greater name recognition combined with a national and state political climate that favors Democrats.

“If Gary Clingman had been running four years ago, we might be seeing a different outcome here,” he told the Journal. “Michael Vigil has more name recognition due to the cumulative effect of him running for statewide before when compared to Clingman.”

The Journal Poll found Hispanic voters favored Vigil over Clingman by a more than three-to-one margin. Anglo voters were more closely split, but were slightly more likely to support Clingman than Vigil. The sample sizes for other racial groups weren’t large enough to provide statistically meaningful numbers.

Meanwhile, Vigil had overwhelming support among Democratic voters, who have a decisive statewide voter registration over Republicans and have been casting ballots at a higher clip than Republicans thus far in early and absentee voting.

In New Mexico, judicial races are run as partisan elections. Under the current system, which was approved by voters in 1988, judges appointed by governors have to run in a partisan election in the next general election after their appointment and, then, if successful, later run periodically in nonpartisan retention elections.

Job termination and DWI arrests

In this year’s race, both Supreme Court candidates have launched television ads in attempts to win over voters.

Vigil has received more than $180,000 in public funding for his campaign, under a system that allocates funding for judicial candidates based on the voter registration figures in each major political party.

Clingman opted not to participate in public financing, and has reported raising more than $198,000 in private contributions and spending $148,453 on his campaign.

He has argued he would bring geographic diversity to the Supreme Court, as the court’s four other justices all hail from Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

However, Clingman has also faced scrutiny over reports from nearly 40 years ago that he was fired from his job as a police officer in Odessa, Texas, over the “arrest and handling” of a black man.

Clingman has acknowledged the firing, which he unsuccessfully appealed, and said he jumped in when his partner got into two fights with the suspect. He has also said he went on to have an “unblemished” career after the incident.

For his part, Vigil acknowledged in a Journal questionnaire he was arrested twice for DWI in the 1980s, but both cases were dismissed.

The New Mexico Supreme Court is set for an additional shake-up at year’s end, when Justices Charles Daniels and Petra Maes will retire. Whoever wins this year’s race for governor – Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham or Republican Steve Pearce – will appoint their successors.

Poll methods

The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 438 likely general election voters, including new registered voters who said they were very likely to vote in this year’s election.

The poll was conducted from Oct. 26 through Nov. 1. The voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 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 (72 percent) and landlines (28 percent) of likely general election voters were used.

Q-and-A’s online: To find out the candidates’ positions on key issues, go to The site also includes links to Journal stories on statewide, legislative and county-level races, district maps, key election dates and other voter resources. It will be updated regularly with new candidate profile stories and other information.