New Mexico’s primary elections on June 7 opened what promises to be a vigorous general election campaign as Republicans aim to make gains in midterm elections expected to be tough for President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats.
Besides a historical pattern in which a sitting president’s party faces election losses midway through the term, Democrats face an electorate beset by inflation, low approval ratings for Biden and rising costs of living in the midst of a continuing pandemic.
Republican voters in New Mexico are expected to be highly motivated to turn out on Nov. 8 to claim a greater share of legislative seats, deny Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a second term in Santa Fe and hold onto New Mexico’s Republican seat in Congress following redistricting.
Meanwhile, Democrats will need their voters to turn out and push back against the midterm tide, hold onto their majorities in state government and flip New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.
Here are five immediate takeaways as the general election season begins in earnest.
More:Get 2022 New Mexico primary election results. Find key state races here.
1. Ronchetti will be competitive
Mark Ronchetti was quickly projected to be the winner of the Republican primary to challenge Democrat Lujan Grisham in the Nov. 8 election.
Ronchetti has long been a familiar face to much of the state, first as a television meteorologist and then as a US Senate candidate in 2020, when he came within six points of Democratic victor Ben Ray Luján.
In his second try for elected office, Ronchetti emerged from a GOP field of five candidates, over which he dominated in fundraising and came out ahead in opinion polls. His campaign pitch emphasized domestic crime and international drug and human trafficking, and like some of his rivals he promised to redeploy the National Guard to the southern border.
More:Mark Ronchetti wins GOP primary for New Mexico governor
Ronchetti needed to win the primary, which turned fiercely negative, by a convincing margin — lest he emerge as a wounded nominee. He met that goal and can proceed to raise funds, focus on Lujan Grisham’s record and make his best case for voters ousting her and taking a chance on him.
While no New Mexico governor has lost a re-election bid since Democrat Bruce King in 1994, this could prove competitive for the governor.
A former congresswoman, Lujan Grisham was elected in 2018 on a progressive platform in a “blue wave” election year in which Democrats won the governor’s mansion and the legislature.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, its economic impact and the state’s response came to dominate her first term, upstaging her early focus on early childhood education, free college tuition and renewable energy, among other priorities.
Her agenda has also been upstaged at times by departures among her cabinet and her campaign’s settlement of a sexual harassment complaint by a former campaign staffer.
One month ago, a survey for KOB-TV conducted by Survey USA found Ronchetti behind Lujan Grisham by just four points in a hypothetical match: 43 percent to the governor’s 47 percent. The survey size was 2,175 New Mexicans, of whom 1,389 were identified as likely voters.
Ronchetti has spent $2.3 million to win the primary, and enters the general election with $470,000 on hand. Lujan Grisham, with no primary opponent, has already poured nearly $4 million to make her case for a second term, and still has more than $3 million available.
2. Herrell faces Vasquez in a new CD2
Las Crucen Gabe Vasquez easily defeated a lesser-known challenger, physician Darshan Patel, to be the Democrat who will attempt to flip New Mexico’s southern US House seat.
Vasquez served a single term on the Las Cruces City Council before relinquishing the office to challenge incumbent Yvette Herrell, an Alamogordo Republican who won the seat in 2020.
Vasquez is a former staffer to New Mexico’s senior US Senator, Martin Heinrich; former southern NM coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation; and founder of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. He also played a prominent role in the designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
Herrell narrowly lost her first bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2018 to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small, but came back in 2020 to win a seat that had long been a safe Republican position.
Vasquez had $377,869 on hand compared to Herrell’s $1,508,805 in most recent campaign finance reports, but Vasquez can count on the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has placed the seat on its list of seats to flip back to Democrats.
The district has also changed after redistricting. The newly drawn CD2 dominates the southwestern corner of the state and is expected to lean slightly Democratic: 53 percent to 47 percent Republican with a population of 705,846 per legislative analysis, spanning the southern border and reaching up into part of Albuquerque.
3. Most incumbents safe despite redistricting
Following the 2020 US Census, election districts have been redrawn, which means some incumbents are seeking reelection in districts that have changed or could even find themselves in a new district.
For example, state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, will no longer reside in District 38, which she has represented since 2017. Dow is leaving her seat, having run for governor in the Republican primary instead of seeking a new term . When the new districts take effect on Jan. 1, her residence will be in District 49, which would have meant a reelection bid would have to be in the district currently represented by her fellow Republican, Gail Armstrong of Magdalena.
Despite new maps, however, most incumbents among Democrats and Republicans who faced primary opponents appeared to survive into the general elections.
Preliminary results suggested two Democratic incumbents and one Republican would lose their seats in the primaries.
In District 40 to the north, Velarde Democrat Roger Montoya appeared to lose after a single term at the Roundhouse to his predecessor, former state Rep. Joseph Sanchez, who took 57 percent of the vote in unofficial results. Sanchez had served one term in the state House before making a Congressional run in 2020, losing in a crowded Democratic primary.
State Rep. Rachel Black, R-Alamogordo, a first-term lawmaker, trailed challenger John Block by less than 50 votes in preliminary results Tuesday, and State Rep. Ambrose Castellano, D-Serrafina, finished primary night with 77 votes fewer than his Democratic rival, Anita Amalia Gonzales.
4. Libertarian Party status at stake
New Mexico has been a three-party state since 2016, when the Libertarian Party earned major-party status thanks to a presidential run by the state’s former governor, Gary Johnson.
Johnson had served two terms in Santa Fe as a Republican before switching to the Libertarians. His presidential campaign earned over nine percent of the vote in New Mexico, well over the five percent required in a statewide election to secure major party status. In 2018 he ran for US Senate as a Libertarian, taking 15 percent of the vote.
In 2018, the party achieved that threshold again despite not having a candidate for governor on the ballot. Its candidates for Commissioner of Public Lands and Secretary of State preserved the party’s standing as an alternative to Republicans and Democrats.
For the first time, the Libertarians will have a candidate for governor in 2022: Karen Bedonie will face Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti in November. Bedonie is a Navajo Nation resident in McKinley County and a former Republican candidate for Congress.
Her challenge will be to distinguish herself clearly from Ronchetti and the Republicans, having herself initially launched a gubernatorial run as a Republican before switching to the Libertarian camp. Bedonie’s positions on abortion, immigration and Trump’s border wall mirror the GOP primary candidates’, which Ronchetti is poised to carry with a fundraising advantage over Bedonie.
If Bedonie does not reach 5 percent of the vote, there are Libertarian candidates for other statewide offices that could preserve the party’s status: Travis Steven Sanchez for Lt. Gov., Mayna Erika Myers for Secretary of State and Robert Vaillancourt for state auditor.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
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