Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A surge in Republican turnout throughout southern New Mexico helped carry Yvette Herrell to a solid victory over U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in Tuesday’s election – a reversal from their matchup just two years ago.
But strong voter participation also buoyed Democrats, who rode huge margins in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to hefty wins in the statewide race for an open U.S. Senate seat and in the other two congressional districts.
For Democrats and Republicans alike, New Mexico’s historically high turnout shaped their success in an unprecedented election season.
Republicans cast ballots at far higher rates than did Democrats in Lea and Chaves counties, for example, even when accounting for the GOP edge in voter registration there, according to an analysis by Research & Polling Inc.
Put another way: About two-thirds of the Republicans registered in Lea County voted in Tuesday’s election, while fewer than half the Democrats did – a pattern that helped propel Herrell to victory.
Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh said it was clear voters in southeastern New Mexico were “very motivated” this election season. Republican women organized a door-knocking campaign in Chaves County on behalf of the president, he said, and a Tractors for Trump rally drew strong attendance.
“These were levels of commitment that I’ve never seen before in politics,” said Kintigh, a Republican who served in the state House from 2009 to 2012.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, the firm that conducts scientific surveys for the Journal and others, said the strong participation of Republicans played out in a number of conservative, rural counties. It was a factor in Herrell’s win but also kept Democrats from running up bigger blowouts in statewide races.
Democrat Ben Ray Luján won the U.S. Senate race by 5 percentage points this year. Almost a dozen Democrats won statewide races two years ago by more than twice that margin.
This year’s election, however, drew more voters to the polls.
“Within those conservative counties,” Sanderoff said, “Republicans voted at higher rates than the Democrats. That helped empower Yvette Herrell, and it helped reduce the margins for Ben Ray Luján.”
Lonna Atkeson, a professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the UNM Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy, said Republican enthusiasm showed up in new voter registrations, too.
Republicans outnumbered Democrats in taking advantage of New Mexico’s new same-day voter registration law, which allowed early voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day.
Add it all up, and Herrell secured an 8-point victory over Torres Small after having lost by 2 points in 2018. And Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden won the state by 10 points, a closer margin than his 13-point victory in Colorado.
“I think the story for me this election is that New Mexico is not really a blue state,” Atkeson said. “It’s violet.”
Democrats win big in Albuquerque, Santa Fe
Nonetheless, Democrats demonstrated their electoral strength outside the conservative-leaning 2nd Congressional District in southern New Mexico.
Voters in both Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties turned out at higher rates than the state as a whole. Turnout reached 75% in Santa Fe County and 71% in Bernalillo County.
Statewide turnout was a few points lower, at 68% of registered voters.
The raw number of votes set a state record, with about 915,000 ballots cast altogether. By turnout percentage, Tuesday’s election was the highest since 2008, when 70% participated.
New Mexico’s urban areas, Sanderoff said, have turned increasingly blue over the years. Republicans are maintaining strength in rural counties, he said, but without the population mass to overcome the large margins Democrats typically win in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.
Herrell, for her part, said she believes she was a stronger candidate this year than in 2018. A presidential election cycle spurred extra voter participation, she said, but the economic challenges facing the state and nation were also a factor.
“We’re seeing a very different America than we saw even 18 months ago,” Herrell said.
Herrell, a former state legislator from Alamogordo, said she is eager to build a strong team and focus on constituent services as she heads to Congress.
Torres Small, who worked as water rights lawyer in Las Cruces before winning election to the House in 2018, congratulated Herrell on Wednesday. In a video released by her campaign, Torres Small thanked supporters, family members and constituents for taking a chance on a “long shot” who was never expected to represent the traditionally GOP district.
“I am so deeply grateful to have served this district – to have served my home – for the last two years,” Torres Small said.