Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham is headed back to her hometown of Santa Fe after defeating Republican Steve Pearce on Tuesday in a spirited showdown to be New Mexico’s next governor.
In a contest marked by big spending and hard-hitting political attacks, Lujan Grisham won the race over Pearce in large part by running up big margins in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico, based on unofficial returns.
“What we did tonight is send a very clear message that this is a state that’s ready to lead in so many ways,” Lujan Grisham told cheering supporters at her election night party in Albuquerque. “Gone are the days when anyone talks about New Mexico not being in first place.”
The three-term congresswoman from Albuquerque grew up in Santa Fe. She announced her campaign for governor nearly two years ago and is the first Latina Democrat elected governor in New Mexico. Outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, also a Latina, was New Mexico’s first female governor.
Lujan Grisham touted her state government experience on the campaign trail – she was previously a Cabinet secretary under three governors – and said she would bring a steady hand to state programs and services that were cut under Martinez’s administration.
In her election night speech, while being serenaded with chants of “MLG,” she said she had received a congratulatory phone call from Pearce and said the two candidates had pledged to work together.
For his part, Pearce told the Journal he had offered to help Lujan Grisham in whatever way he could and said he’s not ready for retirement.
“It’s not the outcome I wanted,” he said, adding that he felt he worked tenaciously. Pearce, who like Lujan Grisham gave up his congressional seat to run for governor, had touted his business acumen and hardscrabble roots as the son of a failed sharecropper.
Lujan Grisham’s victory will mean Democratic control of the Governor’s Office and both legislative chambers for the first time since 2010, when former Gov. Bill Richardson stepped down after two terms in office.
Democrats expanded their majority in the state House in Tuesday’s election and will retain a 26-16 majority in the state Senate. State senators are elected to four-year terms and are not up for election until 2020.
Lujan Grisham has said she would seek during next year’s 60-day legislative session to quickly sign into law many bills vetoed by Martinez in recent years.
She has also expressed support for increasing the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage and diverting more money from the state’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs, though that idea could face resistance from Republicans and some conservative Democrats in the Legislature.
Technical difficulties forced Lujan Grisham to ad-lib during her victory speech Tuesday, but it didn’t appear to faze her.
She said the race’s outcome represented a vote for New Mexico’s children and future generations.
“A new day has arrived,” she said. “And frankly, I can’t wait to get started.”
Democrats in New Mexico and beyond lauded Lujan Grisham for her victory.
“Michelle Lujan Grisham is the governor New Mexico needs to lead our state in a new direction,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said. “New Mexicans are ready to invest in our children and our communities, and Michelle brings the transformative leadership and enthusiastic energy we need to turn our state around.”
For his part, Pearce had expressed opposition to a minimum wage hike on the campaign trail and said he would promote apprenticeship programs for young people who don’t want to attend college immediately after high school. He also vowed to issue an executive order – if elected governor – requiring able-bodied people without children to work if they receive Medicaid.
Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi said Pearce had run a hard-fought campaign that engaged New Mexico voters in conversations about ideas and solutions.
“Instead of relying on partisan talking points and recycled ideas, Pearce laid out a bold and innovative agenda and wasn’t afraid to take it to every corner of the state,” Cangiolosi said in a statement. “He went to communities that don’t typically support Republicans and was always happy to discuss ideas and solutions with people across the political spectrum.”
Although the race ended on a cordial note, with the two candidates referring to one another as friends, they exchanged barbs during televised debates and in political advertisements in the run-up to Election Day.
Pearce hammered Lujan Grisham on her past ties to a consulting firm with contracts to run the state’s high-risk insurance pool, and Lujan Grisham accused Pearce of dishonesty about his business interests in the oil industry and sought to link him to President Donald Trump.
Combined, the two gubernatorial candidates reported spending more than $13.6 million on hard-hitting television ads and other campaign expenditures, making this year’s race for governor one of the most expensive in state history. The total spending figure, which does not include expenditures by outside groups, will increase when final fundraising reports are filed next month.
Longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff said Lujan Grisham benefited from a political climate that favored Democratic candidates. He said she ran a smart campaign that focused on traditional Democratic issues, such as health care, early childhood education and jobs.
As for Pearce, Sanderoff said the veteran congressman, who also lost a 2008 bid for U.S. Senate, was unable to overcome the political headwinds.
“He had to win some blue areas in order to have a path to victory, and he wasn’t able to do it,” said Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc.
This year’s race for governor was open because Martinez, a Republican who was first elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, was barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Martinez will step down at year’s end, and the new governor will take office Jan. 1.
Journal staff writers Maddy Hayden and Shelby Perea contributed to this report.