Swing LowNew Mexico followed the nation—and Republicans reaped the benefits
The mood at US Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s victory party on Nov. 2 was festive. Boisterous Democrats made speeches to a cheering crowd at Hotel Santa Fe, and claps turned ovational as Luján entered the room, as John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” played in the background.
For Democrats in the 3rd District, it was a night to celebrate. For Democrats in general—not so much.
In the end, New Mexicans were clearly ready for change, and elected as governor Republican Susana Martinez with a 7 percent margin against Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, while also replacing eight state House seats with Republicans.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, points to both the GOP wins in the House and the executive branch as evidence “that the national mood was impacting state and local races.”
“Four of those House seats were won by the Democrats in either the ’06 or ’08 elections, and four of those seats were long-time Democratic seats that hadn’t been Republican for quite some time,” Sanderoff says.
As for Martinez, Sanderoff believes “the national mood contributed to her victory. It was not the reason for it, but it contributed to the wide margin.”
Sanderoff attributes the primary reason for Martinez’ win to effective messaging in the campaign that linked Denish to outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson, whose approval ratings sunk in his final term. In turn, Denish was ineffective in “countering” that she “was part of the problems.”
Danny Diaz, Martinez’ spokesman, writes to SFR via email that Martinez won over voters “…because her message of change resonated with the electorate. New Mexicans want to focus on job creation, prudent fiscal management, education reform and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in state government.”
Indeed, the seeds of discontent with government status quo were evident early in Santa Fe County, as outrage over government waste and corruption gave rise to local versions of the national tea party movement.
That movement may not have held ultimate sway with voters, but it still has resonance for some candidates, such as Republican Tom Mullins, the Farmington oilman who garnered 43 percent of the vote against Luján in the 3rd District.
“If the GOP strays from the commitments they’ve made, I think it’s possible there could be a third party in many portions of the country,” Mullins, who plans to stay involved in politics in some capacity, says.
One of the Santa Fe County candidates who fared well against his Republican challenger was state Rep. Brian Egolf in District 47, who walked away with nearly 76 percent of the vote against Republican Brigette Russell.
“We worked to give people a reason to vote for someone as opposed to against someone else,” Egolf says. “And the voters responded.”
Santa Fe County Democratic Chairman Richard Ellenberg credits Santa Fe County for its contribution to wins for state candidates such as Treasurer James Lewis, Auditor Hector Balderas and Land Commissioner Ray Powell.
“We had strong turnout,” Ellenberg says of the slightly more than 59 percent voter turnout. Still, he acknowledges, “the wind was really in our face and that made everything a whole lot harder.”
Don’t look for smooth sailing in 2011, either.
Egolf anticipates the “dramatic changes” in the House will result in Democrats “playing a lot more defense” when it comes to the environment and conservation, and that he and colleagues “will be trying to protect the progress that’s been made in the last eight years…The new Republicans coming in have made no bones about their desire to roll back a lot of this,” he says.
Egolf says while he “honestly and sincerely” hopes Martinez “does a good job,” he’s not optimistic “because a lot of the statements coming out of her office don’t demonstrate a very firm grasp or any grasp of the state budget and how it gets created.”
Ellenberg says that, in addition to voter registration, the Democratic Party of Santa Fe County will spend the coming year focusing on “public responses” to issues such as education and the budget.
“You have the governor-elect claiming that the budget deficit has suddenly increased on her, which is balderdash,” Ellenberg says. “We’re going to be focusing on getting the message out on things like that.”
Diaz writes to SFR that Martinez “will institute common-sense budgeting that will prioritize programs, identify efficiencies, and reduce waste and excess” and will work with members of both parties “to achieve the objective of restoring fiscal sanity with regard to how the state manages the public’s money.”
Perhaps the most significant consequence from the shift in the political landscape will be when the Legislature tackles the 10-year redistricting of the state. Sanderoff, whose company will provide mapping and other services in the effort, anticipates having a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature “will have a tremendous impact on the politics of redistricting, as it did in 2001.”
The redistricting plan, he notes, needs to pass both houses and be signed by the governor, so “you need a meeting of the minds or it ends up in court.”
While the future remains to be seen, the past already has crystallized for some, such as Ellenberg, who succinctly notes, “I have never seen a year like that, where discontent just so dominated the issues and everything else disappeared.” A moment later, he adds: “Hopefully, I’ll never see another one.”