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SANTA FE — Mark Ronchetti breezed past his four Republican rivals Tuesday to set up a November showdown against incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The former TV meteorologist, who faced “weatherman” jabs from his GOP rivals during a pugnacious campaign, was declared the projected winner of a five-way primary race for governor by The Associated Press less than an hour after polls closed.
With nearly 120,000 votes counted in the race, Ronchetti held a decisive lead over his four GOP primary election rivals garnering about 59% of the votes cast, according to unofficial results.
A boisterous crowd of about 300 supporters, who had gathered at an Albuquerque hotel, erupted in cheers and applause when Ronchetti was declared the nominee.
“This is a great day for New Mexicans. But I’ll tell you what, this is going to be a very bad day for the political elite who look out for their own best interests,” Ronchetti said in his 20-minute victory speech, during which he also thanked his wife and two daughters.
“Is New Mexico headed in the right direction? It’s about to be,” he later added. “Unfortunately, we have a governor who has decided that she will look out for the best interest of the elites in Santa Fe instead of for you. That hate stops today.”
But the GOP nominee, whose campaign has reunited several members of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s team, faced immediate criticism from Democrats about his lack of government experience.
“Mark Ronchetti is an out-of-touch weatherman from Vermont who is completely unqualified to lead and oblivious to the biggest challenges facing New Mexicans,” said Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Noam Lee.
New Mexico’s governor’s race has already drawn national attention this year, with the DGA and other deep-pocketed national groups poised to spend hefty sums of money this summer and fall in an attempt to sway voters.
Lujan Grisham, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, is aiming to win reelection to another four-year term after first winning in 2018.
She spent part of election day meeting with affected homeowners in the Mora area, which has been devastated by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire complex, but also made time to cast her ballot at the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office.
Meanwhile, Ronchetti will try to break a recent trend in this year’s governor’s race, as no incumbent governor seeking a second consecutive term has been defeated since Democrat Bruce King lost to Republican Gary Johnson in 1994.
Lujan Grisham will also enter the general election cycle with a hefty financial advantage over her GOP opponent, as the governor reported last week having $3.1 million in her reelection account.
Ronchetti had about $470,000 in his campaign account, after already having spent more than $2.3 million on TV ads and other expenses during the primary election cycle. He will be joined on the Republican Party’s gubernatorial ticket by Ant Thornton, an aerospace engineer who defeated Peggy Muller-Aragon for the GOP lieutenant governor nomination. Thornton would be the state’s first Black lieutenant governor if Ronchetti is elected.
Current Lt. Gov. Howie Morales of Silver City was unopposed Tuesday and will once again be on the Democratic ticket this fall with Lujan Grisham.
Attack ads in GOP race
The five-way GOP primary was marked in recent weeks by hard-hitting attack ads between Ronchetti and Rebecca Dow, a three-term state legislator from Truth or Consequences who called Ronchetti’s conservative credentials into question. Dow came in second with 16% of the votes cast.
Ronchetti fired back with ads attacking Dow’s voting record in the Legislature and highlighting a lawsuit that Dow faced after a former employee at a Boys & Girls Club she ran was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing two boys.
Before polls closed on election day, Dow said she would support Ronchetti if he was the GOP nominee, but suggested the ads would not be forgotten.
“There’s absolutely no doubt about it, Mark Ronchetti went a step too far,” Dow said in an interview. “But we’ve got to rally around conservative values.”
“The goal is to make sure Michelle Lujan Grisham is a one-term governor,” she added.
Jay Block, who came in fourth in the GOP race with 10% of the vote, said Tuesday he was hopeful New Mexico Republicans would come together after the bruising primary election.
“After any tough election, you’re going to have to mend fences,” Block told the Journal.
But he stopped short of pledging to endorse Ronchetti, saying the two of them would have to talk after election day if Ronchetti were to win the GOP nomination.
Block and Dow were the top two vote-getters at New Mexico Republicans’ pre-primary convention in Ruidoso in February, with Ronchetti posting a fourth-place finish.
On Tuesday, Greg Zanetti came in third with 14% of the votes cast and Ethel Maharg trailed with 2%.
While New Mexico has increasingly trended Democratic in recent election cycles, hopeful Republicans believe national political headwinds caused in part by President Joe Biden’s low approval rating could lead to an upset victory in this year’s governor’s race.
They also say Lujan Grisham could be vulnerable due to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, frequent turnover in her Cabinet and the payment of $150,000 in campaign funds as part of a settlement with a former staff member who had accused the governor of sexual mistreatment.
During his speech Tuesday night, Ronchetti blasted the governor for her handling of education and crime issues, while describing Lujan Grisham as the “ultimate political insider.”
“We now live in a state that has become lawless,” Ronchetti said. “The fact is, in this state today, under this governor, it’s easier to be a criminal than a cop. That will change.”
But Lujan Grisham and her supporters are expected to aggressively tout recent state investments in teacher salaries and early childhood programs during this fall’s campaign.
Other recently approved laws such as the 2019 Energy Transition Act, a trio of gun control measures and a 2021 measure that legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico could also be campaign fodder as the governor seeks reelection.
“Over the last three-and-a-half years, we have made significant strides to improve the lives of all New Mexicans, from record investments in New Mexico classrooms, to rebuilding our infrastructure, to growing an economy that is leading the nation in job growth,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
She also said her track record stands in stark contrast with Ronchetti’s, describing her opponent as someone who has “never run a business or served our state.”
The general election will take place Nov. 8, with Libertarian Karen Bedonie joining Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti on the ballot.
Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.