Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Angry phone calls aren’t unusual.
But the arrival last month of an envelope containing a powdery chemical substance and ripped-up mailers with antisemitic symbols shocked the staff at Conservation Voters New Mexico.
The environmental advocacy group has since closed its office as the FBI investigates.
“Sometimes (calls to the office) can get nasty, but I don’t recall any antisemitic comments before,” Demis Foster, the group’s executive director, said in an interview. “This is really disturbing.”
The letter is just one example of what some candidates, campaign staff and advocacy groups say is a particularly negative, menacing political climate ahead of New Mexico’s midterm election this week.
At least one legislator has been called “best friends with pedophiles” in a mailer critical of a vote she took in 2021. Other candidates say their issue positions have been distorted. And the Libertarian candidate for governor says she won’t accept the election results.
The political environment, some candidates say, is simply deteriorating.
“It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” longtime state Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said of the negativity. “If you’ve got something to run on, then run on it. You don’t have to degrade everybody around you to win.”
It’s common, of course, for candidates to complain about campaign attacks. But there’s evidence the political environment really has changed.
University of New Mexico professor Jessica Feezell said “affective political polarization” – a measurement of the gap between how much a person likes their own party and dislikes the other party – has steadily increased for decades. But the divergence in attitudes, she said, has accelerated since 2004.
“There is a higher level of out-party animosity than we’ve ever seen since we’ve been tracking this in the United States,” Feezell said. “I think that’s responsible for a lot of the negative externalities we see today.”
Threats of violence targeting elected officials aren’t necessarily new, she said, but the number has exploded in the last five years.
Just nine days ago, police arrested a man accused of breaking into U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home in San Francisco, asking where she was and attacking her husband, Paul. In 2017, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and others were shot at baseball practice as they prepared for a charity event.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver this summer reported threats to her safety to the FBI. She also went into hiding after the 2020 election when her personal information appeared on an online hit list. The FBI later linked Iran to the threats.
Feezell, who studies political communication, said safety threats could have longterm consequences for the pool of people willing to run for public office in the United States.
‘Rough and tumble history’
Violence aside, some legislative candidates say they’re reeling from a flood of harsh political ads.
Former state Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez, a Bayard Democrat who’s trying to win back his old House District 39 seat, called the barrage of negative mailers on crime, abortion, taxes and other issues “unfortunate.”
“I’ve never run in a race as bad as this one,” said Martinez, who previously held the seat from 2007 through 2014, and then again from 2017 through 2020.
Republican Robert Godshall, a candidate in Northeast Albuquerque, said mailers sent to voters in his district misstate his position on abortion.
But he isn’t convinced the negativity is any worse than past years. The presidential campaign featuring John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Godshall said, was incredibly harsh.
“We’ve always had a very rough and tumble history in politics,” Godshall said.
He believes voters take the negative ads “with a grain of salt.”
New Mexico’s election code does not explicitly bar false campaign advertisements or provide penalties for using them. Other states have enacted such laws, but have encountered enforcement difficulties.
For instance, a federal judge in 2014 struck down an Ohio law on the grounds the government should not be able to determine what is “political truth.”
Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said some of the mailers attacking her character are so harsh that voters bring them up when she knocks on their door.
“A lot of people say they won’t vote for you, ‘but the mailer I got was offensive,’ ” Garratt said. “Even people who disagree with legislation I’ve passed or policies I support have recognized it’s ugly and not necessary.”
She was targeted in a mailer that described her as “best friends with pedophiles & sex offenders.” It cited a vote she had taken in 2021 on legislation concerning judicial discretion for sentencing enhancements.
Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, was criticized in a mailer for a vote she didn’t even take. The bill – dealing with occupational licenses for sex offenders – was voted on before she became a legislator.
Republican legislative candidate Gregory Cunningham of Albuquerque was targeted in an alarming ad on abortion. It depicts police stopping a mother and daughter in their car, asking the daughter if she’s pregnant and then dragging the daughter out of the car, ending with words on screen urging voters to reject Cunningham.
Powdrell-Culbert, the Corrales Republican, said she has faced safety threats in the past.
But the broader political environment, she said, has grown worse over the years if “you look at what people are saying to and about each other – the dishonesty.”
‘Polarized and combative’
Feezell, the UNM professor, said online news and interactions play a role in the political climate.
Encountering someone you disagree with in person may result in a civil interaction, she said, as both people recognize they have something in common during, say, a chance meeting at a doughnut shop where customers love the same food.
But there’s not necessarily a “moderating” shared space for many interactions on social media or the internet, where voters see news stories or commentary amplifying the loudest, most extreme voices in a political debate.
“Our online experiences tend to be very polarized and combative,” Feezell.
The pandemic may also be a factor, she said, reducing in-person interactions and making it easier to see the other side as a caricature.
Some candidates have also told the Journal that the pandemic has made some voters more wary of door-to-door campaigning.
“I think what we’re seeing are the political consequences of a very difficult time in our country due to the pandemic,” Feezell said.
For Foster, the executive director at Conservation Voters, ordinary tasks like opening or sending mail now involve some trepidation.
She said her group – which has sent mailers promoting legislative candidates – won’t be intimidated by the antisemitic material.
The chemical substance in the envelope sent to Conservation Voters wasn’t harmful, according to the FBI. But the group said it contained the ingredients of a toxin used in terrorist attacks.
“I think it’s really important for both political parties in our state to denounce what happened,” Foster said.
Two other left-leaning groups last week reported they had received similar letters, though it isn’t clear whether they also included a chemical substance.
The political climate does not appear to have suppressed voter turnout, as more than 394,800 New Mexicans had cast their ballots via early or absentee voting, according to figures released Saturday morning. It’s roughly in line with the turnout level from 2018 at a similar point in the election cycle.
At stake in Tuesday’s election is control of several statewide offices for the next four years – governor, attorney general, secretary of state, land commissioner and treasurer.
In addition, all three of New Mexico’s redrawn congressional districts are up for election, with incumbents Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández, both Democrats, and Yvette Herrell, a Republican, seeking reelection.
The general election will also decide control of all 70 House seats, with Republicans trying to cut into a Democratic majority in the chamber, along with county-level races, judicial races and three proposed constitutional amendments.