SANTA FE — The day Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republican Mark Ronchetti said he would pursue a 15-week abortion ban — with some exceptions — if elected governor of New Mexico.
But Ronchetti’s longer-term goal, according to the pastor of an influential mega church, would be to end abortion in the state, not just after 15 weeks of pregnancy — remarks that have roiled the governor’s race and been seized on by supporters of Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham as abortion emerges as a defining issue of the campaign.
In a sermon this month, Steve Smothermon, senior pastor of Legacy Church in Albuquerque, told his massive congregation that Ronchetti believes pushing for a total ban would keep him from getting elected, so he’s starting with a less-expansive proposal.
“His goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico, just so you know,” Smothermon said. “You say, how do I know that? Because I talked to him for hours.”
Ronchetti contends his position is consistent and hasn’t changed: He supports a 15-week ban.
New Mexico’s debate over abortion rights intensified this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 decision in Roe, ending the constitutional right to an abortion and empowering states to set new restrictions.
Gov. Lujan Grisham, who is seeking reelection to a second term, opposes limiting abortion rights and worked with lawmakers last year to repeal a 1969 state law making abortion a crime. The statute couldn’t be enforced because of the Roe decision.
Lujan Grisham also issued an executive order last month aimed at protecting patients and providers from lawsuits and arrest warrants filed in other states.
Ronchetti, by contrast, said he would support legislation allowing abortion only in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, and in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is at risk.
The proposal, he said, would be a reasonable way to reach middle ground with the Legislature, where Democrats in the majority have repeatedly rejected proposals to restrict abortion.
In a statement released after his sermon grabbed headlines, Smothermon said his remarks weren’t intended to convey what Ronchetti would do in office.
“Mark was clear with me that he is personally pro-life and what he intends to do as governor, which is identical to what he says in his campaign commercial,” Smothermon said in the statement. “My comments were not intended to convey his strategy as Governor. I believe Mark is committed to ending the terrible practice of late-term abortion in our state, a practice that the current governor sadly embraces.”
But Smothermon, in a sermon delivered July 10, said Ronchetti wants to do more than what he has said publicly.
Smothermon started by acknowledging that Ronchetti’s position — permitting abortion in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy — angered many in the church, himself included.
“I had a long talk with him for hours,” Smothermon said in the sermon, a video of which is posted on the Legacy Church website. “I said, ‘Dude, right out of the gate, you blew it.’
“He said, ‘Here’s what I was trying to do,’ and I said, ‘I know what you were trying to do, but you didn’t do it.'”
Smothermon added that Ronchetti told him that he wanted to start by “getting rid of partial-birth abortion in the whole state.”
“And he said, ‘But I just can’t go in and do it all 100% because we won’t ever get elected.’ He said, ‘I just want to start.’
“But his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico, just so you know.”
Smothermon’s sermon touched on other politicians, too. He described Lujan Grisham as “wicked and evil,” even “demonic.”
He has clashed with her administration in court over pandemic orders, and he criticized her participation in an LGBTQ pride parade.
Legacy Church, where Smothermon preaches, is one of the biggest in the state, with locations throughout the Albuquerque area and other parts of New Mexico. Its dome sanctuary on West Central Avenue has seating for 2,600 people.
Ronchetti isn’t a member of the church.
‘Clear and consistent’
The Ronchetti campaign says his support for a 15-week abortion ban is authentic and has been his consistent position.
Ronchetti told Smothermon “exactly what he has told everyone else in this race,” campaign spokesman Enrique Knell said in a written statement. “He wants to end late-term abortion in New Mexico by limiting abortion to the first 15 weeks.
“His position has been clear and consistent and the Pastor recently clarified that Mark didn’t tell him anything different than what Mark is saying publicly in his television ad.”
It’s Lujan Grisham, not Ronchetti, who has the extreme position on abortion, Knell said.
Supporters of Lujan Grisham, in turn, jumped on the pastor’s remarks, first reported by KOB-TV.
The Democratic Governors Association said the pastor’s remarks show Ronchetti is lying to voters and abortion access is under threat at the ballot box.
Lujan Grisham campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said Ronchetti had “resorted to lying in order to trick New Mexicans into electing him to the Roundhouse.”
Libertarian candidate Karen Bedonie said in a video released by her campaign that she is “absolutely pro-life” and was happy to see Roe v. Wade overturned.