Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The election of Republican Donald Trump – oddly enough – may help Democrats reclaim the Governor’s Office in New Mexico, national and local analysts say.
A few national publications, in fact, have already flagged the Roundhouse as ripe for a change in party control when Republican Susana Martinez wraps up her second term as governor next year.
State elections are often shaped by the political environment across the country – and that could favor a Democratic candidate, local experts say. Presidents, for example, frequently face a backlash at elections held in the middle of their four-year terms.
Local analysts say the “pingpong effect” – the tendency of Democrats and Republicans to trade off occupancy of the fourth floor of New Mexico’s Capitol – could also be at work next year.
“We’re not a one-party state,” said Lonna Atkeson, a professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the UNM Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy. “We tend to pingpong in response to (party fatigue) and in response to public mood.”
It’s been 35 years since a New Mexico governor has handed the office over to someone of the same party. In 1982, Democrat Toney Anaya won election to succeed fellow Democrat Bruce King.
And what’s happening in D.C. has an impact on state elections.
Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling Inc., which does scientific surveys for the Journal, said Republicans, for example, flipped a dozen districts in the New Mexico House of Representatives at one point during the tenure of then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Republicans turned a 20-seat deficit in the 70-member House into a four-seat advantage, he said.
“Whereas the Republicans were the beneficiaries of this phenomenon in two election cycles,” Sanderoff said, “now it’s the Democrats who in all likelihood will have an advantage if Donald Trump’s approval ratings (remain low) both nationally and in New Mexico.”
Trump lost New Mexico by 8 percentage points in last year’s election. He lost the national popular vote by 2 percentage points. (Trump took office by winning enough swing states to secure a decisive majority in the Electoral College.)
Real Clear Politics, which averages numerous national polls, estimated Trump’s approval rating at 43 percent last week. That’s about 20 percentage points lower than the average for other newly elected presidents in their first quarter, according to a historical comparison by Gallup Inc., the national polling company.
Inside Elections, a company run by nonpartisan political analyst Nathan Gonzales, rated New Mexico recently as leaning toward a Democrat in next year’s race. And writers at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report describe the state as a toss-up or without a favorite at this point.
Republicans have dominated statehouses across the country: They occupy 33 of the 50 governorships.
New Mexico is one of 38 states that will elect governors this year or next.
And it’s one of the states identified by Democrats as a potential pickup opportunity, national analysts say. For one thing, the race is wide open, with no incumbent, and for another, the state has increasingly voted Democratic at the federal level.
The state Constitution prohibits Martinez from seeking a third consecutive term.
“Democrats believe this is one of their best pickup opportunities anywhere in the country,” the recent article posted to Inside Politics with Nathan L. Gonzales proclaimed.
The state Democratic Party immediately shared the news with local reporters and supporters.
Other analysts have also identified New Mexico as a state to watch.
In January, Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball – part of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia – described New Jersey, Illinois, Nevada and New Mexico as among the four best pickup opportunities for Democrats.
“Republicans start the 2017-2018 gubernatorial cycle in an impressive but vulnerable position,” Kondik wrote. “The governorships being contested over the next two years combined with the tendency for the president’s party to lose ground in midterms suggests that the Democrats are positioned to start 2019 with more governorships than they hold right now, but nothing is guaranteed.”
In December, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, rated New Mexico as a toss-up but noted that it might move into the “lean Democrat” category depending on who gets into the race.
Nonetheless, there are some potential factors that could neutralize Democrats’ expected advantage, said Sanderoff, the New Mexico political analyst. If Trump’s popularity climbs nationally and in New Mexico, for example, that could help Republicans, he said.
The quality of the candidates themselves and the debate over local issues also influence the race.
The field of candidates hasn’t fully taken shape yet.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat whose district covers Albuquerque, is the only major candidate to announce a campaign so far.
Other potential candidates in the Democratic primary include state Attorney General Hector Balderas, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, media executive Jeff Apodaca and Santa Fe businessman Alan Webber.
The field is less clear on the Republican side, but potential candidates include U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, whose district covers southern New Mexico; Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez.
Voters in each party will pick the nominees in June next year. The general election is in November.
The Republican candidate, whoever it is, will be fighting recent history in New Mexico. Voters have opted to change the party in control of the Governor’s Office – sometimes after one term, sometimes after two – for more than 30 years.
Some “party fatigue” sets in among voters, and there’s often a desire to balance power, said Atkeson, the UNM professor.
In particular, Sanderoff said, the party occupying the New Mexico Governor’s Office tends to face blame for the state’s problems and challenges.
In 2010, for example, Martinez repeatedly took aim at Democratic incumbent Bill Richardson, describing him as the leader of a “failed” administration that hadn’t delivered on the economy, education and ethics.
Next year, it will be a Democrat touting his or her ideas for disrupting the status quo and addressing New Mexico’s consistently poor rankings in educational quality, unemployment and child well-being.
“This time the tables are turned,” Sanderoff said.