Amid low turnout, NM voters choose their candidates
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — A contentious campaign season will end Tuesday — and another will begin — as voters in New Mexico cement gubernatorial candidates and a host of open races.
The outcome of Tuesday’s primary election could also reshape the State House, where moderates and progressives are vying for control of a series of Democratic-leaning seats.
For Republican voters, the top of the ballot presents increasingly bitter competition between the five candidates vying to take on Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this fall.
On the Democratic side, the open race for attorney general has generated its own series of negative attacks, with state auditor Brian Colón and Albuquerque-based district attorney Raúl Torrez trading blows over who is more qualified.
Regardless of race, voters in New Mexico aren’t heading to the polls just yet.
“It’s lighter than expected,” Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said in an interview. “I think it’s going to be a slow turnout. I don’t think there will be any lineups in Lea County.
About 9% of registered voters in the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties had already voted – either by mail or on early voting sites – according to figures released Friday. The percentage will increase, of course, when election officials release the final tally of early voting and incorporate turnout on Election Day itself. Mail-in ballots are due Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said it was reasonable to expect moderate to low turnout given that Democrats – the largest group of voters in the state – have no contested gubernatorial race or open seat in Congress to weigh in on.
Turnout in New Mexico’s primary elections reached 42% in 2020, but voter turnout was just 28% in 2018 and 34% in 2016, according to an analysis of state records by Research & Polling. Inc.
Turnout has averaged about 35% over the past three primary election cycles.
“We may not even get there,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based polling firm.
The GOP is focused on the border
The Republican gubernatorial race offered a taste of the themes expected in the legislative election campaign.
The top-funded GOP candidates — former KRQE meteorologist Mark Ronchetti and state Rep. Rebecca Dow — each focused on border security and immigration in early TV ads.
Ronchetti, who had a strong lead in the Journal poll conducted last month, criticized Lujan Grisham in a recent ad for pulling the National Guard from the border after taking office.
Sanchez, executive director of UNM’s Center for Social Policy, said the focus on immigration fits with a political strategy used across the country to energize Republican voters.
Immigration, however, hasn’t necessarily been a big deal for New Mexico voters, he said, especially in 2020 when the pandemic dominated election season.
The question for the Republican nominee, Sanchez said, is whether the border message will resonate with an electorate “much more liberal on immigration than the one it’s aimed at” in the primary.
Dow and Ronchetti slammed each other in tough TV commercials. Dow questioned Ronchetti’s loyalty to Republican principles and former President Donald Trump, and Ronchetti hit Dow on his legislative record, among other negative barbs back and forth.
It remains to be seen whether the attacks will have carryover effects that will linger into the general election campaign.
Sanderoff, the Albuquerque pollster, said the ads could provide a template for Lujan Grisham or his supporters as they search for an effective message targeting the Republican nominee.
“The ads reduce the preference of the two candidates,” Sanderoff said. But “the average voter is not born yesterday, and they recognize that some of these ads stretch the truth and exaggerate.”
Sanchez said voters expected harsh attacks on prominent candidates.
“I don’t think it has the same knockdown factor that we might have seen 10 years ago,” he said.
Ronchetti and Dow raised the most money in the Republican field and had the most visible television presence throughout the campaign.
But Sandoval County Commissioner and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jay Block showed strength at the Republican convention earlier this year, leading the five-person group in support delegates. This means that his name appears first on the ballot.
Greg Zanetti, an Albuquerque financial adviser and retired Army National Guard general, has also been well-funded as he seeks the nomination.
Rounding out the plot is former Cuba mayor Ethel Maharg, an anti-abortion activist.
The winner will face Lujan Grisham, who is seeking his second term, and the libertarian Karen Bedonie.
Democrats choose candidates in three contested races for statewide office, none of which field an incumbent for re-election.
The race to succeed Attorney General Hector Balderas pits two of the state’s most prominent Democrats – Colón, the auditor, and Torrez, the prosecutor – against each other.
Neither of them applied for the position.
Torrez castigated Colón as a career politician with no experience in public safety. Colón characterizes Torrez as a failed prosecutor with an abysmal success rate.
The winner will face Republican Jeremy Gay, a Gallup attorney and former Marine Corps judge advocate.
Balderas, a Democrat, cannot run this year due to term limits.
The Democratic race for treasurer is also contentious, sparking three ethics complaints and a series of attack announcements.
Former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya and Heather Benavidez, chief of staff for outgoing State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, are up for the nomination.
The winner will face Republican Harry Montoya in the fall.
In the race for the state auditorship, Democratic candidates Joseph Maestas, a member of the Public Regulatory Commission, and Zack Quintero, a former state ombudsman, are campaigning for the nomination.
No Republicans filed in the race.
Lower ballot races
Voters also choose candidates for the state House of Representatives, where all 70 seats are on the ballot, and for counties and other offices.
The legislative races come as moderate and progressive Democrats vie for an advantage in the party.
Progressive Democrats won a string of state Senate primary victories two years ago, pushing the chamber left as lawmakers passed — and ultimately passed — abortion rights legislation and the legalization of marijuana.
But this year’s races have the potential to reverse or stop the trend.
Democrats have 13 contested House primary races, six of which do not have an elected incumbent seeking re-election.
In some cases, progressive incumbents face challenges from moderate, business-friendly applicants.
The competitions are taking place as the Chamber prepares to choose new leadership next year. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, resigns at the end of the year.
“There are a lot of contested House seats in the Democratic primary,” Sanderoff said. “If a trend were to occur, it could influence the outcome of the speaker’s run.”
Two potential candidates to succeed him — House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, a progressive from Albuquerque, and House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chair Patricia Lundstrom, a moderate from Gallup — have handed out contributions to favored candidates.