From reliably GOP to Dem stronghold, a district evolves

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mike Frese

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Lost in this year’s sea of negative campaigning is one big race that’s both stayed positive and stayed off most people’s political radar.

Political analysts, including UNM political science professor Mike Rocca, believe incumbent U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-NM, is likely to win re-election over Republican challenger Mike Frese, and win big.

“It appears to be less competitive than previously,” Rocca said.

The district Lujan Grisham and Frese are competing for, New Mexico’s CD-1, has evolved tremendously since it was first created following the 1968 election.

For the first 40 years, it was dominated by Republicans. Manuel Lujan was first to win the seat, holding onto it until he left to join President George H.W. Bush’s cabinet. Steven Schiff was next, keeping the seat in GOP hands until he passed away in the middle of his fifth term in Congress. Heather Wilson followed, winning the district until she left to run for the U.S. Senate during the 2008 election.

Democrats came close to winning a few times during that four decade run. Bill Richardson narrowly lost to Lujan in the 1980 election. The margin was even closer in 2006 when Wilson topped attorney general Patricia Madrid by 861 votes.

The breakthrough for Democrats came in 2008, in CD-1, New Mexico and the country. With President Obama on the ballot for the first time, a Democratic wave carried Martin Heinrich to a double digit victory over Republican Darren White. Two years later, Heinrich weathered a Republican wave and scored a tight victory over Jon Barela.

When Heinrich left for the Senate in 2012, the Congressional seat came open again. This time the shift in the district became crystal clear. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no problem keeping the seat in Democrat hands, topping Janice Arnold-Jones by almost 20 points.

Now this year, in a year where many analysts expect Democrats to struggle nationally, Lujan Grisham’s seat is still considered very much a safe one.

So what changed?

“The most important factor in this is the demographic change,” Rocca said. “We have become much more Hispanic and as a result much more Democratic over the last 20 or 30 years.”

Another problem Republicans now have is one that the party benefited from when they controlled CD-1. This is a district where no incumbent representative has ever been defeated before.

“More likely than not, even in an anti-incumbent year, more likely than not [the incumbent is] going to end up winning,” Rocca said.

Rocca says Republicans can make the district more competitive by luring more Hispanic voters to their cause. That’s easier said than done.

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