Contests to determine New Mexico’s next secretary of state and commissioner of public lands were neck-and-neck going into the final days of the 2014 general election campaign, a new Journal Poll found.
Meanwhile, the poll found Democrat Hector Balderas held a comfortable lead over challenger Susan Riedel, a Republican, in the race for attorney general.
Fifty-one percent of voters surveyed Oct. 21-23 said they planned to vote for Balderas, who is currently state auditor, or had already voted for him. Thirty-five percent said they had voted or would vote for Riedel, a former prosecutor and judge, with the rest saying they were undecided.
Absentee voting for the Nov. 4 election began Oct. 7. Early, in-person voting began Oct. 18 and ends Saturday.
In both the secretary of state and commissioner of public lands races, incumbent officeholders are facing stiff challenges.
Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran was in a virtual tie with her opponent, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County clerk. Support for the two candidates was evenly split at 42 percent, the Journal Poll found.
“This is a dead-heat race that will be determined in the closing days of the election,” said Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
Democratic Land Commissioner Ray Powell also was in a tight race against Republican Aubrey Dunn.
Forty percent of voters surveyed said they had voted or would vote for Dunn, compared with 39 percent for Powell. One-fifth of voters surveyed about the race said they were undecided.
While so-called down-ballot statewide races – or contests for lower-profile offices – generally favor Democrats in New Mexico due to a historic edge in voter registration, this year’s races are complicated by a national and state “voting mood” that favors Republicans, Sanderoff said.
Turnout levels are also generally lower in nonpresidential election years – just 52.7 percent of registered New Mexico voters cast ballots in 2010.
With Election Day fast approaching, Balderas appears to be better-positioned than other Democratic candidates to withstand the adverse “voting mood,” Sanderoff said.
In the Journal Poll, 76 percent of Democratic voters polled said they had voted or would vote for Balderas, compared with 67 percent of GOP voters who said they would back Riedel.
Among registered New Mexico voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a roughly 3-to-2 ratio, meaning GOP candidates generally need to siphon off some Democratic votes to win statewide races.
“The Democratic voters are not slipping away in large numbers (for Balderas) like they are for some other Democrats in other races,” Sanderoff said.
Fifty-five percent of independent voters, or those who decline to state a party affiliation and account for 19 percent of the statewide registration total, backed Balderas.
In addition, Balderas received the backing of more than two-thirds of Hispanic voters surveyed. The results among Anglo voters was more closely split.
Balderas, a former state legislator from Wagon Mound who ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, entered this year’s attorney general race with a decisive name recognition advantage over his opponent, Sanderoff noted.
He has sought to build on that edge with campaign ads that tout his state auditor records on uncovering cases of government wrongdoing.
Riedel, of Las Cruces, has tried to build her statewide name recognition via TV campaign ads that portray her as a tough-minded prosecutor. However, she has been outspent and outraised by Balderas in this year’s race.
“Susan Riedel definitely has a major uphill climb to turn things around in such a short time period,” Sanderoff said.
The last Republican to be elected attorney general was Hal Stratton, who served from 1987 through 1990.
Secretary of state
Sanderoff said the secretary of state’s race is “pairing two titans of the election administration business.”
Duran was the first Republican to hold the seat in 80 years when she was elected in 2010. A former state senator for 18 years, she spent 25 years in the Otero County Clerk’s Office, including four years as county clerk.
Toulouse Oliver has been the clerk in Bernalillo County – the state’s most populous county – for nearly eight years.
While each has moderate name recognition with voters, their strengths lie in different parts of the state, the pollster said.
Toulouse Oliver had the support of 49 percent of the voters in the Albuquerque area, to Duran’s 34 percent, and 61 percent of voters in north-central New Mexico – including Santa Fe and Taos – to Duran’s 26 percent, according to the poll.
Duran outpaced Toulouse Oliver 64 percent to 21 percent on the state’s east side, and 57 percent to Toulouse Oliver’s 29 percent in the northwest.
Sixteen percent of voters across the state were still undecided, the poll showed; Sanderoff said a lot of people haven’t thought about it yet.
“It’s starting to get nasty out here in this race,” Sanderoff also said, a function not just of how close it is, but of its importance to the political parties.
Duran’s campaign is running an ad picturing Toulouse Oliver alongside a dog, revisiting the account of the dog that was registered to vote in Bernalillo County in 2012 by the husband of a GOP campaign staffer.
A national independent expenditure group ran an ad against Duran calling her reckless and incompetent for turning the names of 64,000 registered voters over to the State Police to check alleged irregularities.
Sanderoff said the race will “ultimately be determined” by turnout on Election Day, with a low turnout harmful to Democrats.
In the land commissioner race, Dunn, a Lincoln County rancher, is threatening the re-election of Ray Powell, the state’s longest-serving land commissioner.
While Democrat Powell’s tenure in office has been largely noncontroversial and his campaign “relatively quiet,” Republican Dunn has run an “aggressive, effective” campaign, Sanderoff said.
“I think that’s hurt Ray Powell and put him in a place where he is in a competitive race,” the Journal pollster said.
Twenty percent of voters polled hadn’t made up their minds about the contest – including 26 percent of those in the Albuquerque area.
“It’s not terribly unusual that one in five is undecided, considering it’s a low-profile race,” Sanderoff said.
Powell’s strength was in the heavily Democratic north-central region, where he had 59 percent of voters to Dunn’s 26 percent. Dunn, meanwhile, was favored by 61 percent of voters on the state’s more conservative east side, while Powell had the support of 25 percent.
Sanderoff attributed much of Dunn’s success in deadlocking the race to a television ad featuring Becky Mullane, former owner of the popular Dixon’s Apple Orchard, attacking Powell for his actions after a wildfire and subsequent flooding destroyed the orchard on state trust land.
Sanderoff said the compelling ad personalizes the issue of state land management, and typically a candidate would want to come back with a “spirited defense.”
Powell has countered with ads of his own, but they are running on radio and on less expensive cable television, rather than the networks. One of the TV ads has been running for a week, while a second just started; Dunn’s ads began more than a month ago.
The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 614 proven voters, most of whom cast ballots in both the 2010 and 2012 general elections and said they were likely to vote again this year.
The poll was conducted Oct. 21-23. The full voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.
Research & Polling Inc. generated a random sample in which each New Mexico county received a representative proportion primarily based on turnout patterns in the 2010 general election for governor. When necessary, surveys are weighted to reflect the known distribution of age, gender and party affiliation, based on the 2010 election. Historically, voter turnout is much lower in nonpresidential election years, such as 2010 and 2014. Racial and ethnic proportions are based on Research & Polling estimates of turnout patterns.
All interviews were conducted by live, professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone. Both landlines (67 percent) and cellphone numbers (33 percent) of proven general election voters were used.