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New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District has been a Democratic Party stronghold since its inception in 1982. Since then, just one Republican, Bill Redmond, has held the seat, even then for an abbreviated term. Democratic candidates have dominated the district, winning 19 of 20 elections, often with more than 60% of the vote, sometimes 70%.
But the GOP maintains there is an opening for them in 2020 – just two years after Democrats took all of New Mexico’s statewide and federal elective offices.
After a dozen years, Ben Ray Luján is vacating the seat that represents the northern third of New Mexico in the U.S. House. Republicans say they believe there is a vulnerable field of progressive Democrats – eight are running at this point – and a shifting political environment under President Trump.
Six low-profile Republican candidates – four of them women – have already registered to run in the primary election in June, according to the Federal Election Commission website. And that field is expected to grow as another woman told the Journal late last week that she planned to register as a candidate.
That stands in stark contrast to past elections. No more than two GOP candidates have sought the seat in recent history and, in 2002, Republicans didn’t even bother to compete against popular Democrat Tom Udall, who later became a U.S. senator.
“The fact that six candidates are vying for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat is a sign that there’s high interest in turning it red,” Anissa Tinnin, executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a statement to the Journal.
“People are tired of the leftist politics and policies that have dominated not only the Roundhouse, but also our state’s federal delegation. The Republican Party of New Mexico believes the 3rd District will elect our eventual nominee, because there are conservative Democrats who stand with the Party when it comes to Republican values. Voting Democrat has caught up with us and constituents are ready for change.”
Tinnin said conservative Democrats care about family values and will support a pro-life, pro-gun, fiscally conservative agenda promoted by the GOP. She also said last week’s impeachment of President Trump will backfire on Democrats.
“Voters know this has all been political theater, and Republicans and Democrats alike will turn our Congressional delegation red,” she said.
But it will take more than talk to flip the 3rd District. Republicans make up 27% of the district’s registered voters, while 50% are Democrats, with the remainder independents or registered with smaller parties.
Six Democrats have raised more than $96,000 for their primary races, three have raised more than $300,000 and the fundraising leader, former CIA operative Valerie Plame, has taken in close to $700,000.
Of Republicans candidates reporting so far, the fundraising leader has less than $7,000 and roughly 1% of Plame’s total.
While the Republican candidates in CD3 aren’t far apart when it comes to their views on abortion, the Second Amendment and immigration policy, they are a diverse group including residents of the far reaches of the state’s northern and eastern borderlands. Some of them say that’s why they’re running. Where they live, people feel unrepresented and disenfranchised, they say.
“We haven’t seen politicians come out our way. I’ve never seen Ben Ray Luján in the flesh,” said Karen E. Bedonie of the Mexican Springs chapter of the Navajo Nation north of Gallup. Her campaign website features a photo of her dressed in traditional clothing and holding a Winchester rifle painted as if it were wrapped in an American flag.
Bedonie would like to turn New Mexico red in another way, joining Deb Haaland, a Democrat and enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bedonie says that where she lives, there are coal miners, ranchers and small-business owners whose interests are not addressed. “These are the people I represent,” she said, adding that progressive ideas like the New Green Deal will kill the cattle industry.
On the other side of the state, in Portales, lives another gun-toting woman running for the CD3 seat, Audra Lee Brown.
She was the first Republican to publicly declare her candidacy for the seat. A world shotgun shooting medalist, as well as a world champion martial artist, she says she was inspired to run for the seat after testifying at hearings on gun control legislation at the state Capitol during this year’s Legislative session.
“I was moved by how many people showed up. And in rural areas, it takes a lot to get out and go to something like that,” said Brown, who drove nearly four hours to attend the hearings. “That told me people didn’t feel like they were being represented. It was clear that people weren’t being heard.”
Brown was one of several candidates who said a shift is taking place in New Mexico. People are pushing back against the progressive Democratic agenda, she says.
“This isn’t California,” she said. “New Mexico is a rural state.”
Anastacia Golden Morper is a real estate agent who shares time between “little ranchettes” she owns in rural Quay and Colfax counties, while her statement of candidacy lists a Santa Fe address for her campaign. Morper, who friends and family call “Anise,” said she was motivated to run by her clients – and her own personal experience.
“I do real estate for farms, ranches and homes, and realized from those clients that they are being underserved. I’ve helped people move here, because they were enchanted by our state. But they leave after a few years, because they become disenchanted,” she said.
Morper said that her own four adult children have also left New Mexico to pursue careers.
“People are leaving for good-paying jobs just to meet their basic needs. It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
An open seat
Republicans contend the CD3 seat is up for grabs in 2020 partly because, for just the fourth time in nearly 40 years, they aren’t up against a Democrat incumbent.
“Any time you don’t have to face an incumbent, there’s an opportunity for a candidate,” says Alexis Johnson, who spent most of her career as an energy consultant in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico before retiring and moving to Santa Fe.
She also believes the Democratic field vying for the seat is extremely vulnerable. She sees problems for three Democrats she considers frontrunners: Plame, for once retweeting an anti-Semetic article blaming Jews for starting American wars; Santa Fe District Attorny Marco Serna, for a judge’s freeing of a confessed murderer after Serna’s office failed to meet speedy trial standards; and Teresa Leger Fernandez, whose support for abortion rights Johnson argues runs contrary to the values of northern New Mexicans.
“That’s the best they can offer for northern New Mexico?” she asked. “Put me in a ring with Valerie Plame, and I can guarantee you I can win the vote of those moderate Democrats.”
Moderate Democrats will be targeted by Republicans when the general election rolls around next year.
Harry M. Montoya, who until April was a registered Democrat, says moderates will play a key role when the general election rolls around.
“It’s going to be me working with the moderate Democrats that still believe in the traditional values that we’ve had here in New Mexico forever. That’s the vote we will target,” said Montoya, a former Santa Fe County commissioner who ran for the CD3 seat in 2008, placing fourth in a field of six in the Democratic Party primary, and tried to get on the ballot another time. He also served two four-year terms on the Pojoaque Valley school board.
Montoya, constituent/legislative affairs director with the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, said he switched parties after being told by Democratic Party leadership that he wouldn’t get party support unless he came out as pro-choice on abortion.
He said his pro-life stance and moderate political views make him an attractive candidate to New Mexicans, regardless of party affiliation. “I wouldn’t be doing this without the confidence that it will happen,” said Montoya. “And I’ve had moderate friends tell me as much.”
The latest candidate to enter the race is also the oldest.
Seventy-three-year-old Cecilia Martinez Salazar, of Española, told the Journal last week that she was going to file as a candidate on Friday.
Active in the Republican Party since 1978, she has also run for the CD3 seat before as the only Republican to step up against incumbent Bill Richardson in 1988.
“I didn’t raise any money, and the party didn’t give me much help,” said Salazar, who garnered 27% of the vote that year.
Salazar said she had no plans to run for the sear this year, because she didn’t want to run against an incumbent. But that changed when Luján announced in the spring he would seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Udall.
With Luján out of the picture and the CD3 seat up for grabs, Salazar believes the GOP could send money to whoever wins the Republican primary in order to seize the chance to win the district.
“I think the Republican Party has a good chance,” she said. “Ben Ray Luján has done nothing for the district and people are frustrated with that. People will vote for someone who will get things done.
“And a lot of people have told me that they think the candidate that will come out of the Democratic side will be Valerie Plame, and they think a Republican will have a good chance of winning.”
One other GOP candidate has registered with the Federal Election Commission to be on the ballot in the Republican primary. But the Journal couldn’t reach him for comment.
Ben Bateman of White Rock, a former Green Beret, is a capital projects manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Efforts to reach him by phone and through social media platforms were unsuccessful.
One GOP victory
Democratic candidate Serna’s father, Eric Serna, is the only Democrat to have lost an election in the 3rd District, losing to Redmond in a special election in 1997 after Bill Richardson resigned to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
In that race, Eric Serna, who lost by 3,000 votes, was likely done in by a lack of enthusiasm for him among progressive voters. Carol Miller, a Green Party candidate, got 17% of the vote and Redmond won while receiving well short of a majority.
Leger Fernandez has gained traction behind the support of EMILY’s List and is second to Plame in fundraising, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Serna has the support of several veteran Democratic political figures and former office holders.
Other Democrats in the race include former New Mexico deputy secretary of state John Blair, state Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde, Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya, environmental attorney Kyle Tisdel of Taos and Gavin Kaiser of Santa Cruz.