Valencia County’s 17 presidential elections streak comes to an end

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Belen Community Center on the first day of early voting in October. (Valencia County News-Bulletin Photo)

SANTA FE – From Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump, voters in Valencia County correctly picked the winning presidential candidate in every election from 1952 through 2016.

But the remarkable bellwether streak – 17 consecutive presidential elections – has come to an end.

While President-elect Joe Biden defeated Trump statewide, Valencia County voters backed the Republican president by 9 points – with Trump getting about 53% of votes cast in the county and Biden receiving about 44%, based on unofficial results.

And Republican candidates won in Valencia County in other races too, including the race for an open U.S. Senate seat and county-level offices on the ballot.

So has the bellwether turned into a political safe haven?

Megan Morgan-Cordova, who has lived in Valencia County for most of her life and is the county Democratic Party’s vice chairwoman, said most voters in the largely agricultural area used to vote on a candidate-by-candidate basis, regardless of party affiliations.

But she said she believes that’s no longer the case.

“We’ve voted the way of the people for a long time, and I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Morgan-Cordova told the Journal.

She said Trump generated ardent support in Valencia County, with frequent vehicle caravans for the president in the run-up to Election Day. And that support may have ended up benefitting other Republicans running for election this year.

Other Democrats point to the role played by mega churches in Los Lunas and Belen, with some saying the houses of worship have an outsized impact on local politics.

But local Republicans say county residents have not fundamentally changed in recent years.

State Sen. Greg Baca of Belen, who was elected last week by fellow Republicans as Senate GOP floor leader, said Valencia County still has a large number of straight-thinking moderate voters.

“I think Valencia County is the pulse of New Mexico,” he said, referring to its mix of rural and urban areas.

Baca, an attorney and Gulf War veteran, also said he believes Valencia County will remain a bellwether county, despite its recent lurch to the right.

However, there’s little doubt that Valencia County’s political complexion has changed.

In 1992, 61% of registered voters in the county were Democrats, and 33% were Republicans.

In the days leading up this year’s general election, Democrats made up 41.2% of the registered voters in Valencia County, while Republicans made up 36.4% of the county’s electorate.

Not the only county

Going into this year’s election cycle, Valencia County’s bellwether streak in presidential elections was the longest of its kind in the nation.

Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal, a Republican, said the streak has generated national media interest and scrutiny.

“I think everyone was surprised Valencia County went red,” she said.

But it was not the only bellwether county to see its winning streak come to an end this year.

Of the 19 counties nationwide that had a perfect record in picking presidential candidates from 1980 through 2019, just one – Clallam County in Washington – voted to re-elect Trump this year, according to the Associated Press.

Trump ended up losing to Biden in both the national popular vote and most battleground states, though legal challenges are still pending in some states.

One battleground state that Trump did win was Ohio, which had voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election dating back to 1964.

University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said there are seismic changes occurring around the nation as many counties become more politically homogenous.

“There’s a lot of shifting going on,” Atkeson said in an interview. “And it’s not just about people moving, it’s about people realizing they’re not where they should be, politically speaking, on both sides.”

She pointed out that neighboring Bernalillo County has become more solidly Democratic in recent years, even as Valencia County becomes more conservative.

Meanwhile, Valencia County is more diverse than many other bellwether counties, as its population was roughly 61% Hispanic and slightly more than 6% Native American as of 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Independent thread

Looking back, local Democrats say not having campaign rallies and other in-person events due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have hurt their candidates’ chances this year.

They also say the 2020 election cycle was unprecedented in other ways, too, as Trump generated both fierce support and fervent opposition.

“The partisanship has accelerated over the last four years like we’ve never seen before,” said Joan Day-Baker, the chairwoman of the Valencia County Democratic Party.

In fact, while Biden lost in Valencia County, he still got 14,263 votes – or more than the amount Trump got in 2016 when he won the county – as voter turnout set an all-time high in New Mexico.

But an additional 3,000 or so Democratic voters who cast ballots in 2016 and 2018 did not vote this year, Day-Baker said.

She cited the defeat of former longtime state Sen. Michael Sanchez in 2016 as a turning point in county-level politics.

Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, was defeated by Baca in a race that included a barrage of hard-hitting attack mailers sent by a political committee run by ex-Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser.

“That was a real big flag as to where this county was headed,” Day-Baker said.

State Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said local frustration with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic may have also played a role in this year’s election results.

“We just have that very independent thread that runs through us,” said Fajardo, adding people in Valencia County “don’t like to be told what to do.”

“It was the perfect storm in Valencia County,” said Fajardo, who has served in the state House since 2013 and won re-election this month.

But she also expressed hope the days of politically charged atmosphere in Valencia County will eventually blow over.

“I think Valencia County is indicative right now of the polarization in the nation,” Fajardo said.

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