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Leaning more to the left

The Democratic Party dominates state government positions headed into next month’s election and shows few signs of losing its grip. Seen here in February are, from left, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and House Speaker Brian Egolf, all Democrats, with several other lawmakers and cabinet secretaries in the background. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Democratic Party in New Mexico seems poised for significant change – no matter who wins on Election Day.

The primary election in June saw many conservative Democrats, some of whom held powerful positions in the state Legislature, lose their reelection bids to more progressive challengers, including Sen. John Arthur Smith (Deming) and Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen (Las Cruces).

Republicans are now hoping that more progressive candidates will spur social conservatives to vote with the GOP in November, potentially accomplishing the difficult task of flipping the state Senate.

“Conservative Democrats don’t agree with progressives on almost anything,” said Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party.

Pearce said he believes issues surrounding abortion, guns, taxes and crime will be deciding factors for more conservative voters this election cycle.

However, some political analysts seem more hesitant about Republicans’ chances of success in 2020.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, Inc. in Albuquerque, said large support for former Vice President Joe Biden in New Mexico will impact down-ballot races, making it harder for Republicans to compete as a result.

“The top of the ticket influences down-ballot races, and we’ve seen a number of polls showing (President) Donald Trump behind in New Mexico,” Sanderoff said.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, of Deming, and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, of Las Cruces, held powerful positions in the state Legislature, but both were ousted by more progressive candidates during the June primary. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

However, state Democrats have adopted a more progressive stance on a number of issues, he said, so this election will highlight what kind of impact they have had on voters.

During the 2020 Legislative Session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a red flag gun bill, which allows firearms to be temporarily taken away from those deemed a danger to themselves or others. Progressive Democrats have also attempted to repeal an unenforceable ban of abortions still on the books in state law, efforts that have failed so far.

Those more progressive stances represent a shift in the Democratic Party and a potential concern for its more conservative members, Sanderoff said.

“There is evidence to demonstrate that the Democratic Party has shifted more to the left,” he said. “We still don’t know whether the majority of voters will perceive it that way.”

Many conservatives also believe Lujan Grisham’s restrictions on businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic struggles, could potentially convince some voters to support those who advocate for fewer restrictions.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) said his party is aware of that possibility But he believes most New Mexicans support the governor’s decisions.

Peter Wirth, the Senate majority leader, says on issues such as abortion, a woman’s right to choose is more important than ever. But it’s one that could steer many devout Catholics in northern New Mexico away from the Democratic Party. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I think there’s no question that that’s going to be an issue on the minds of voters,” Wirth said of business restrictions. “But I support the governor’s actions. I think she has struck the right balance.”

Some have honed in on northern New Mexico as a test of this potential shift. The area has been solidly Democratic for decades, but some believe its traditionally Catholic voters might be swayed to vote Republican this time around.

Harry Montoya made that decision almost 10 years ago, when he officially switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

The former Santa Fe County commissioner and recent congressional candidate said he was a lifelong Democrat, but the party’s shifting values left him feeling alienated, especially in relation to his faith.

“Those are, I would say, basic tenets of my belief of how I grew up, and how I was taught by my parents and grandparents,” Montoya said. “(Democrats have) moved so far away from that.”

Some of the Democratic Party leadership in the Roundhouse did not disagree that such issues such as abortion have become more unified in the party as of late.

“I think there are fundamental issues in the Democratic Party, and a woman’s right to choose is one of those,” Wirth said. “That issue is more important than ever.”

He also said that, rather than supporting abortion becoming a litmus test for Democrats, fewer and fewer members of his party are anti-abortion.

Harry Montoya was a lifelong Democrat. He says his faith caused him to move to the Republican Party. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Montoya said he agrees that’s true and is hoping it convinces more people to switch parties, like he has, while admitting the political landscape of northern New Mexico makes that difficult to happen.

Political life in the area has been dominated for decades by powerful bosses called patrons, who often determined who received governmental jobs – sometimes the best work in the area. Most of the time, these bosses were Democrats.

“If you’re going to get a job, you’ve got to register to vote,” Montoya said. “And if you’re going to register to vote, you’re going to register Democrat, period, and then you get the job.”

While that era has largely died out, Montoya said it was still present while he was a Democratic member of the Santa Fe County Commission in the early 2000s.

He also pointed to recent rallies in support of Trump in Española, saying many of those supporters were one-time Democrats that have now switched parties.

“I think there’s that silent majority that’s going to turn out,” he said, “You’re going to see a change.”

Sanderoff, however, said recent elections should not give Republicans much hope for turning the tide in what’s been a reliably blue northern part of the state.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won big in the region, garnering 71% of votes in Santa Fe County, 68% in San Miguel County and 64% in Rio Arriba County.

Two years later, Lujan Grisham, herself from Santa Fe, earned a convincing win for governor with 78% of those in Santa Fe County voting for her, along with 75% in San Miguel and 73% in Rio Arriba.

“North-central New Mexico … has proven to be quite the Democratic stronghold in recent federal elections,” Sanderoff said.

However, he said any seismic shift in party allegiance won’t be immediately evident until all the votes are counted and that the Roundhouse could look different in January, especially with an open president pro tempore position up for grabs in the Senate.

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