AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
While New Mexico is considered by many to be a solidly “blue state,” having voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since 2004 (and having failed to do so in that year by only the narrowest of margins) there are some subtle signs that the party’s grip over the state may be weakening. While the state does not have a U.S. Senate race in 2022, incumbent Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham faces a fierce challenge from Republican Mark Ronchetti. Meanwhile, the results of redistricting do not rule out the possibility of a one or two seat gain for Republicans in U.S. House races, particularly as shifts among Hispanic voters add a wholly new and unpredictable aspect to the contests. Finally, given the current political environment and Joe Biden’s historic unpopularity, Republicans may indeed be poised for major gains – but they will have to work for them.
The situation in New Mexico contrasts somewhat with that of another key Southwestern state, Nevada, which AMAC Newsline profiled last week. With a heavily working-class Latino population, in a state hard hit by COVID-19 lockdowns, Democratic prospects there looked grim – not least because local trends had already been running against the Democratic Party for over a decade. There is a decent chance that even in a neutral year, Democrats would find themselves in trouble in Nevada.
New Mexico, despite similar demographics, is a different story. The most promising opportunity for Republicans appears to be the governor’s race, as Ronchetti, a former television meteorologist, lost the 2020 Senate race by a shockingly close 6% margin while Biden won the state by 10%. Polls show the race with Grisham as too close to call, but with Grisham stuck in the mid-40% range. Meanwhile, efforts by Democrats in the redistricting process to set themselves up to win all three of the states’ congressional seats have created a possibility that Republicans could manage that feat instead.
Drilling down a bit into the statistical history, it becomes clear that Republicans nonetheless face a tough climb in New Mexico. It becomes clear why when the last five presidential elections are considered in relation to the national margins. (These are somewhat obscured in 2016 by the strong performance by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who won 9% on the Libertarian Party ticket.)
|Year||New Mexico Result||National Margin||Difference|
|2000||47.9%-47.8% Gore||48.4%-47.9% Gore||R+.4%|
|2004||49.1%-48.9% Bush||50.7%-48.3% Bush||D+2.2%|
|2008||56.9%-41.8% Obama||52.9%-45.6% Obama||D+7.8%|
|2012||53%-42.8% Obama||51%-47.2% Obama||D+6.6%|
|2016||48.3%-40% Clinton||48%-45.9% Clinton||D+6.2%|
|2020||54.3%-43.5% Biden||51.3%-46.8% Biden||D+6.3%|
As with Nevada, the Democratic advantage peaked with Obama’s landslides among Latino voters in 2008. Since that election, the state’s politics appear to be static according to the topline numbers. This perception, however, is misleading. Substantial change has taken place, but unlike in Nevada, where the combined Democratic margins from Reno’s Washoe County and Las Vegas’ Clark County actually declined in raw votes from 2012 to 2020, in New Mexico, Democrats have managed to milk the growth in the fast growing inner suburbs, powered by a tech-industry exodus from California, to increase their raw vote margins. The result has been to cancel out Republican gains elsewhere in the state since 2008, in effect freezing in place the overall partisanship. The influence of Bernalillo County, home to the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, and its neighbor in Santa Fe is evident when we examine how it has behaved since 2000.
|Year||New Mexico Result||Bernalillo County||Bernalillo Vote Margin||Santa Fe County||Santa Fe Margin||Total Margin, Bernalillo + Santa Fe||Statewide Margin||R Margin Rest of State|
|2000||47.9%-47.8% Gore||48.7%-46.6% Gore||D + 4,212||64.7%-28.3% Gore||D+18,043||D+22,255||D + 326||R+21,929|
|2004||49.1%-48.9% Bush||51.5%-47.3% Kerry||D+11,802||71.1% – 28.7% Kerry||D+27,608||D+39,410||R+5,988||R+45,398|
|2008||56.9%-41.8% Obama||60%-38.7% Obama||D+61,045||76.9% – 21.9% Obama||D+39,760||D+108,805||D+125,590||D+16,785|
|2012||53%-42.8% Obama||55.6%-39.3% Obama||D+44,331||73.5%-22.3% Obama||D+35,372||D+79,703||D+79,547||R+256|
|2016||48.3%-40% Clinton||52.2%%-34.5% Clinton||D+48,719||71.1%-20.1% Clinton||D+36,361||D+85,080||D+65,567||R+19,513|
|2020||54.3%-43.5% Biden||61%-36.6% Biden||D+77,622||76.1%-22.3% Biden||D+44,201||D+121,823||D+99,720||R+22,103|
As is evident, while Democrats have always done well in Santa Fe/Albuquerque, that was not enough to win the state in either 2000 or 2004. It was also not needed in 2008, when Obama would have won the state even had no votes been cast in either of the two counties. Starting from 2012, however, Democrats became dependent on their margins in the area to win statewide. What made the difference compared with Nevada is that they generally managed to increase them, unlike Democrats with Las Vegas.
Does this mean Democrats are safe in New Mexico? It was not enough to stop Republican Susana Martinez from winning two terms as Governor in 2010 and 2014. So Republicans can win statewide. But generally, they need to be able to appeal in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and not just run up the totals in rural areas.
Enter Mark Ronchetti, the GOP candidate for governor. Ronchetti was a longtime meteorologist for KRQE, the local television station in Albuquerque. Those links paid off when he ran for Senate in 2020. Although he lost statewide by 6%, compared to Trump’s loss by 10%, a large portion of the difference was made up in Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties, where he lost 57%-41% as opposed to 61%-36%, and in the suburban Sandoval County, where he lost 49%-48% while Trump lost 53%-45%. With Joe Biden deeply unpopular and gubernatorial races being less partisan than those for Senate, he seems set to break through. Polls show Grisham, who won by 14% in 2018, leading by an average of only 3.5% this year.
There are other factors which are driving Democrats down in the state as well. If one of the reasons for the trend toward Democrats in the suburbs in recent cycles was a perception that the Republican Party had gone too far to the right, then in 2022 the reverse is true for Democrats, not just nationally but locally with concern over “woke” issues, energy, and inflation.
New Mexico Democrats have historically been moderate, but in the leadup to the 2020 elections, progressive challengers associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez targeted seven incumbent Democrats, including the long-time chair of the state Senate Finance Committee, John Arthur Smith, who was defeated along with five of his colleagues after a 32-year tenure. The result was to usher in one of the most left-wing two year periods in state history. Grisham, with the support of the legislature, has advertised New Mexico as an abortion haven for out-of-state patients, and sought to make cash payments to “offset” inflation, a policy certain to worsen the state’s labor shortage and further fuel the inflation it purports to halt. This extremism already caused one Democratic State Senator, Jacob Candelaria, to quit the party after suing the Governor.
Among Candelaria’s complaints was an aggressively partisan redistricting map for the state’s three U.S. House seats, which sought to target first-term Republican Yvette Harrell by splitting Albuquerque three ways. Candelaria asserted this move denied both Albuquerque and Hispanic residents a voice in Congress in favor of using their votes to elect another partisan Democrat. Under the old map, Joe Biden won two districts and Donald Trump one. Under the new map, Biden won all three.
The backlash may help power Ronchetti to the governor’s mansion as a perceived moderate alternative to Grisham’s hyper-partisan, hyper-liberal governance. But Democrats may have opened themselves to a wider backlash as well. By purging their own moderates at a time when they have already spread themselves thin, they have left themselves vulnerable to a disastrous drop in support. This is evident in the new U.S. House map. Under the old map, Biden won the 1st district by 23% and the 3rd by 17%. Under the new map, he wins the three districts by 15%, 6% and 10%, while Ronchetti lost them in his 2020 senate race by 5%, 3%, and 8%. Democrats arguably did a decent job sticking the swingiest regions into the most heavily Democratic 1st district, but by cutting their own margins, they exposed themselves to a potential Republican gain of one or even two seats.
On a wider level, New Mexico Democrats chose to bet on the inflexibility of New Mexico’s partisanship across the board since 2020. They bet they could purge their own moderates, spread their supporters thin in new congressional maps, and govern as if the state was Washington or California. 2022 will provide a test of whether they are right – or whether Republicans can break the stalemate in New Mexican politics which has existed since 2012 and sweep the state.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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