Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opened her reelection campaign Thursday with a short speech and a few fist pumps as rowdy protesters outside shouted through a megaphone and booed so loudly they often drowned her out.
The Democratic governor spoke for just four minutes, declaring that “no amount of noise will deter or intimidate” her as she seeks reelection to a four-year term in 2022.
She delivered her remarks to supporters in the outdoor theater at the Albuquerque Museum. Just over the wall, dozens of protesters carried anti-vaccine signs and shouted at the governor’s supporters to take their masks off.
Individuals yelled “Wuhan Lujan,” “sieg heil” and “lock her up” as Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Velasquez and other speakers took the stage and tried to warm up the crowd of supporters.
Lujan Grisham – not known for short speeches – started with humor and kept it brief.
“I know it’s going to be loud,” she said as protesters sounded sirens and shouted while she stood on stage. “I just have to say I’m sorry that we picked the same location that the QAnon lizard people meeting was at.”
Some of her supporters looked unsettled as the yelling and noise continued for about 90 minutes, much of it while they waited for the event to begin.
As people arrived, one man repeatedly offered a Nazi salute, and others took turns using a bullhorn.
Messages on protest signs included “Coronahoax” and “COVID1984.” Chants of “MLG has got to go” could be heard in the courtyard as the governor’s supporters gathered on the other side of the museum wall.
The governor took the stage about 6:40 p.m. and pumped her fist as supporters rallied with their own chant of “M-L-G.”
Democratic legislative leaders gathered to speak with reporters afterward. They called the protest childish, rude and embarrassing, and they credited Lujan Grisham for not letting it stop her.
“It was very difficult to hear anyone,” Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said. “At one point, I had to put fingers in my ears.”
History is on governor’s side
No governor in New Mexico has lost reelection since 1994, when Democrat Bruce King was defeated by Republican Gary Johnson. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have traded off every eight years.
But Lujan Grisham, 61, also faces unusual challenges as New Mexico emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed thousands of residents and inflicted severe economic damage. The state’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the country.
The broader political environment may also create headwinds. The party in control of the White House – Democrats, in this case – tends to lose ground at midterm elections.
One prominent Republican has jumped into the race already to challenge Lujan Grisham next year – Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block, an Air Force veteran from Rio Rancho.
Lujan Grisham on Thursday said she would run on her record as governor since 2019. She has signed legislation legalizing marijuana for adults, committing New Mexico to a carbon-free energy system and repealing a 1969 anti-abortion law.
Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico professor and director of the UNM Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy, said gubernatorial elections are often a referendum on both the president and incumbent governor.
Lujan Grisham starts with a substantial advantage because Democrats make up 45% of the state’s registered voters, 14 points more than Republicans.
But she could also face potential challenges, Atkeson said, brought about by inflation, supply shortages or other economic hiccups.
“Those factors, if they turn negative, could really affect her ability to succeed, especially if Republicans put up a good candidate,” Atkeson said in an interview.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque, said the last three New Mexico governors – Johnson, Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Susana Martinez – each won re-election by comfortable margins.
“Incumbent governors have a distinct political advantage, assuming they maintain adequate approval ratings,” Sanderoff said.
Polling, he said, showed Lujan Grisham’s “approval ratings increased during the early phases of the pandemic. Time will tell whether she can maintain adequate approval ratings during the course of a hard-fought campaign.”
Settlement likely a contentious issue
Republican legislators and party leaders have repeatedly slammed Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic, contending her business restrictions have been far too severe and worsened the state’s economic woes.
Her administration also has faced criticism for the Public Education Department’s failure to meet a federal deadline that could cost the state millions of dollars; the child-welfare department’s use of an app to auto-delete some internal messages; and a legislative report that estimated the state may have overpaid $250 million in unemployment benefits.
Republicans also assailed Lujan Grisham’s character after her campaign disclosed a settlement with a former campaign staffer who had accused her of pouring a bottle of water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch through his clothes, in front of other members of the campaign in 2018.
The governor and her campaign staff have flatly denied the accusation.
“New Mexicans are fed up with their Governor embarrassing their state and are ready to vote for Republican leadership to take control in 2022,” Will Reinert, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said in a written statement Thursday.