Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lujan Grisham, Ronchetti focus on persuasion, turnout in homestretch | Local News

The first opportunity Tom Wakely will get to vote for governor in his new home state of New Mexico will be next month in the high-stakes Nov. 8 midterm election.

But Wakely may sit the election out.

The 69-year-old retiree, who moved from San Antonio, Texas, to Deming a year ago, is scrupulously undecided.

Wakely, a long-shot Green Party candidate for Congress two years ago in Texas, said he wouldn’t vote for Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti. And because he feels Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hasn’t given climate change the attention it deserves, he may not vote for the incumbent Democrat, either. Libertarian Karen Bedonie isn’t even really on his radar.

“I’m deciding whether to vote for the Democratic candidate or not vote at all,” he said.

With the midterm election only about a month away, the candidates are running out of time to sway undecided voters like Wakely, who are part of their strategy to win what has become a fiercely competitive race for governor.

Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti have raised — and spent — millions of dollars to promote their candidacies, as well as to attack each other. So-called dark money groups, which don’t have to identify their donors, have gotten involved in the race, too.

But now that the candidates are entering the home stretch of campaign season, they’ve focused not only on continuing to persuade voters but on mobilizing their supporters as early voting is set to begin.

“Michelle’s job is probably the easiest,” said Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, referring to Lujan Grisham.

“I project she’s out in front pretty comfortably at this point, so for her, it’s all about no missteps and making sure she gets turnout among her base of voters. I think if she does that, and she doesn’t have any major gaffes or missteps down the home stretch, it’s her race to win,” he said. “But obviously, a lot of things, crazy things, can happen in the last few weeks of the campaign.”

Ronchetti, a former longtime television meteorologist who has been trailing Lujan Grisham in polling, has a tougher job, Sanchez said.

“He’s got to obviously not make any missteps, but he’s got to gain some ground, and typically, what you see from candidates that are behind, that’s when they start to get more aggressive and maybe start more personal attacks, mudslinging,” he said . “They’ve got to really have a game-changing moment.”

Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff agreed both candidates have to avoid any “pitfalls or costly mistakes” that could dissuade some of their supporters from voting or lead them to switch sides.

With early voting looming, Sanderoff said both campaigns will begin focusing on trying to inspire their supporters to get out and vote.

“Sure, they’ll continue to persuade the undecideds, they’ll continue to go negative on each other just to sort of hold on to their momentum,” he said. “But at some point it really comes down to making sure [their supporters cast a ballot]. You can be ahead in the polls, but if you don’t get your supporters out on Election Day or through [other] election methods, then you’re in trouble.”

Lujan Grisham was unavailable for comment, campaign spokeswoman Delaney Corcoran said. Corcoran wrote in a statement Lujan Grisham “is focused on visiting with voters all over New Mexico” as the campaign heads into the final stretch of the election.

“From Shiprock to Roswell, the governor isn’t taking any vote for granted,” she wrote. “This election depends on motivating Democrats, Republicans, and independents to come together to continue New Mexico’s progress to protect abortion access, our public schools, and the future of our state.”

In a telephone interview, Ronchetti said his plan is to continue to focus on the issues most important to New Mexicans.

“There are really three big issues that affect people’s lives significantly that we continue to talk about,” he said. “One of them is obviously crime. It continues to be a huge issue across the state of New Mexico, and it continues to get worse, so we spend a lot of time talking to people who’ve been victims of crime, talking to law enforcement, talking to advocacy groups that talk about ways that we can make things better in this state because clearly we are headed in the wrong direction on that front.”

The two other big issues that he’ll continue to drill down on are the economy and education, he said.

Asked about the results of recent polls that show him lagging behind Lujan Grisham, Ronchetti said he’s not worried.

“We feel very good about where things are right now,” he said. “You can use polls as a therapy animal if you want to make yourself feel better on whatever side you’re in. But that is a snapshot at that moment. We know we are in very good shape.”

Ronchetti declined to disclose what his internal polling shows but indicated he’s on the right path.

“Let’s put it this way: I am extremely confident in where this campaign is because I think we’re talking about issues that affect people’s lives,” he said.

“If you look at where the governor is, she spends most of her time either making excuses or being in the midst of personal attacks, and we’re just not doing that,” Ronchetti continued. “If you watch the way she operates and the way her surrogates operate, it is really disappointing to see the governor of the state of New Mexico take the approach she has. People in this state have an expectation that their governor is going to fight for them and try to improve their lives with good policies, and unfortunately, this governor hasn’t done that.”

While tackling crime and improving the economy have been central themes of Ronchetti’s campaign, abortion access has been a focal area for Lujan Grisham, which political pundits say is part of a strategy to get women, particularly female Democrats, out to vote.

“She’s working on the right strategy from my perspective,” said Lonna Atkeson, an internationally recognized election expert and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

Atkeson said a Republican would have a good shot at winning the race for governor under “typical, nonpolarized times.”

“We’ve got a really unpopular president, terrible inflation and economic conditions … so there’s a lot of real negatives, and it’s a midterm,” she said. “But then we’ve had all this other stuff going on. We’ve had [the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade] and the abortion issue. … What typically should be a good year for Republicans in New Mexico and in other very blue states may not pan out, giving the edge to [Lujan Grisham].”

Sanchez said polling that shows Lujan Grisham ahead of Ronchetti could work against her because her base of supporters may think her victory is in the bag.

“I honestly thought that Lujan Grisham would run away with this thing,” he said. “I think Ronchetti has run a very disciplined campaign, and he’s raised enough money to get his message out, which has made this more competitive than I think even myself expected.”

Corcoran said Lujan Grisham isn’t taking the election for granted and “working to earn the votes of every New Mexican” until the polls close.

“Women and Democrats are galvanized across the state, understanding that the future of abortion access, protections for our environment, marriage equality, and more depend on the outcome of the November election,” she wrote. “New Mexicans understand that their family’s future is on the line and will no doubt show up in droves to protect it.”

While there’s a base of Democrats and Republicans who are inspired to vote, both candidates will have to mobilize their supporters, Sanderoff said, noting turnout is historically lower when there’s no presidential election.

“In a lower-turnout election, each vote becomes more important,” he said.

Sanderoff and Sanchez said Ronchetti will have to sway non-Republican voters to win the race.

“It’s crucial for the Ronchetti campaign to pick up the lion’s share of the undecideds,” Sanderoff said, adding he will also have to “persuade some of the more conservative Democrats, people who might share his views a little more on social issues. That’s essential.”

Sanchez agreed, adding New Mexico has gotten more blue.

“Ronchetti really has to make sure, essentially, all Republicans turn out in high numbers for him to have a fighting chance, and he’s got to peel off some moderate Democrats and the lion’s share of independents,” he said. “The chessboard for him is just a little bit more difficult given the demographics of the state.”

Sanderoff said Ronchetti will have to continue to be aggressive in his campaign.

When a candidate is seeking reelection, “it becomes a referendum on the incumbent,” he said. “It’s up to the challenger to persuade the voters and say why the incumbent does not deserve a second bite of the apple.”

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