SANTA FE – An unusual election season – dominated by Zoom calls, not campaign rallies – will lumber to a close Tuesday when New Mexico voters nominate candidates for open seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
State and county races are also at stake, including a series of spirited campaigns featuring liberal challengers taking on Democratic incumbents in the state Senate.
By all accounts, it’s been a strange time to campaign, amid a public health emergency that has resulted in hundreds of deaths in New Mexico and tremendous economic damage.
“This is a whole new thing,” University of New Mexico professor and elections expert Lonna Atkeson told the Journal. “If you’re a candidate, how do you get through COVID – get through so you can be heard?”
Campaigns have turned to webinars and telephone calls to address supporters and draw contrasts with their opponents. They’ve relied on mail, print, broadcast and digital media to deliver their message.
But since March, candidates have largely abandoned the usual door-knocking, neighborhood forums and in-person campaign events.
Nevertheless, it’s now voters’ turn to weigh in. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and absentee ballots must be in election officials’ custody by 7 p.m.
Only Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians can participate in the primary election.
The top of the ballot features a contest to succeed U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who is retiring after a long career, including 12 years in the Senate.
The Democratic and Libertarian nominees are already clear. U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, is giving up his seat in Congress – representing northern New Mexico – to try for the Senate.
Scientist Bob Walsh is the Libertarian candidate.
Competing to take them on are three Republicans: business and law professor Gavin Clarkson; anti-abortion activist Elisa Martinez; and ex-television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.
Luján’s departure from the House has triggered a 10-candidate scramble to replace him in a heavily Democratic district.
The seven Democrats running in the 3rd Congressional District are former deputy Secretary of State John Blair; lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez; Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya; former CIA officer Valerie Plame; state Rep. Joseph Sanchez; 1st Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna; and attorney Kyle Tisdel.
The Republican candidates are businesswoman Karen Bedonie; oil and gas engineer Alexis Johnson; and former Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said the primary plays an important role in determining “which direction the party moves.” But the GOP, he said, will have no trouble uniting once voters decide the candidates.
“We feel like we’ve got a very strong ticket headed into the general election,” Pearce said.
Republicans, he said, quickly embraced digital campaigning when the pandemic hit.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said the health emergency hasn’t dampened party efforts to energize voters and connect candidates with the public. In Taos County, for example, party leaders have held webinars to introduce candidates to voters.
“We’ve got outstanding candidates this year and exciting choices,” Elliston said.
Perhaps the most combative race this season is the Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District – traditionally a GOP seat but now held by Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.
Oil and gas executive Claire Chase and former state Rep. Yvette Herrell have attacked each other over who is more supportive of President Donald Trump, among other issues. Also running is business owner Chris Mathys, who says all three candidates would be strong advocates of the president’s agenda.
The winner will advance to face Torres Small in the fall in what’s expected to be one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country. Steve Jones, an independent, is also campaigning for the seat.
Oddly enough, a liberal super PAC weighed in on the Republican side with ads attacking Chase and praising Herrell – a sign that some Democrats view Chase as the more serious threat to Torres Small, should she advance to the general election.
In the Democratic primary, attack ads have emerged in some legislative races.
A coalition of left-leaning groups and activists is campaigning to unseat five state senators, accusing the incumbents of blocking progress on health care, early childhood education and other issues.
The targets include three of the most powerful members of the Legislature: Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces; Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming; and Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee Chairman Clemente Sanchez of Grants.
The incumbents have pushed back on the criticism, arguing that their voting record reflects the wishes of their constituents, many of whom live in rural areas.
Absentee voting rises
Even with the pandemic dominating the news, there are signs of strong voter engagement this year, said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group.
About 155,000 voters, for example, had returned absentee ballots through Friday morning, or about seven times more than in the 2016 primary. The number will grow in the coming days as more ballots are returned through Tuesday night.
The increase is due at least partly to a push by election officials to encourage absentee voting as a way to participate in the election safely from home, rather than risking transmission of COVID-19 at an in-person polling place.
Ferguson said the response to the pandemic – much of it coordinated by state and local leaders – has underscored for many voters the importance of casting a ballot.
“It’s important to raise your voice,” she said.
It isn’t clear whether the election will attract higher turnout overall.
Atkeson, the UNM political science professor, said the lack of competitive races for the Democratic and Republican nominations for president may mean fewer voters this year than in 2016.
And of course, the public health crisis has prevented much of the in-person contact New Mexicans are used to before an election.
“Those of us who love politics love people,” Elliston of the Democratic Party said. “It’s been really hard.”