Top 10 takeaways from NM 2014 mid-term election

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The 2014 mid-term election is more or less in the books now. There were, as always, plenty of winners and losers. There were also plenty of things to learn from the results.

1) New Mexico doesn’t change who it sends to Washington easily.

All four members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation up for a vote this year, Democrat or Republican, won and won handily. Sen. Tom Udall’s re-election win over Allen Weh continues a winning streak for New Mexico’s incumbent U.S. senators that dates back to the 1982 when Jeff Bingaman upended Harrison Schmitt. Udall’s “So What?” attack ad may have been the ad of the campaign, a tough blow that stopped Weh’s late rally in its tracks.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham also dominated in her re-election effort in what was a bad year for Democrats nationally. Down South, Democrat Rocky Lara was far less competitive than expected against incumbent Rep. Steve Pearce. Pearce won nearly two thirds of the overall vote.

Simply put, New Mexico’s five U.S. representatives and senators appear very safe for the moment.

2) Incumbents (almost) ruled in statewide races too.

At the state level, incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez and Secretary of State Dianna Duran came out on top. In Martinez’s case, that win preserves a streak of three incumbent governors in a row winning a second term that dates back to 1998. Voters also gave the nod to Duran in a close race with Democratic challenger Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

New Mexico’s new attorney general Hector Balderas, likely had a nice boost from his time as state auditor. That kind of recognition (plus a Breaking Bad-themed ad) also helped state senator Tim Keller move into the state auditor’s office Balderas vacated.

Of course it didn’t work for everybody. Although a recount is imminent, it appears incumbent land commissioner Ray Powell will lose to Republican challenger Aubrey Dunn by a very narrow margin. And of course, Gary King failed to slide from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s office.

3) The GOP was surprisingly strong, nearly perfect when it came to state house races.

Before Tuesday’s election, News 13 identified five seats Democrats were targeting and five seats Republicans were targeting in the battle for the New Mexico House.

So how did they do?

Democrats won the one practically guaranteed race on their map. Rep. Vickie Perea, R-Bernalillo/Santa Fe, was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to a relatively safe Democratic district. Her loss to Matthew McQueen was no surprise.

But elsewhere, Dems failed to pick off Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Dona Ana, Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-San Juan, Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Valencia, or Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Bernalillo/Sandoval. In most cases, they weren’t even close.

Meanwhile Republicans were four for five in the races they targeted, beating Rep. Emily Kane, D-Bernalillo, and Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Bernalillo, in Albuquerque races, as well as Rep. Philip Archuleta, D-Dona Ana. They also won back the seat formerly occupied by Rep. Nate Cote, D-Dona Ana. Their only loss of the five was failing to topple Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos.

That result alone would’ve been enough for GOP control of the House, but Republicans sneakily stole another seat. Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez, R-Dona Ana, lost in a contest that was off the radar.

With Republicans taking five seats and Democrats only winning one, it set up the GOP for a historic 37-33 edge.

4) Few were excited about voting this year.

How did Republicans win so convincingly in a state where 47 percent of voters are registered Democrats and just 31 percent are registered Republicans?

Well, as political analysts often point out, Republican voters seem to be more likely to consistently turn out, whereas Democrats seem to show up in bigger, presidential years.

Not surprisingly, a historic night for Republicans relied, in a big way, on a historically bad voter turnout. According to the Secretary of State’s unofficial numbers, about voters cast their ballots in 2014. That’s a turnout of about 40 percent. It pales in comparison to 2010, when 607,700 came out to vote, a turnout number of 53 percent.

The lack of close compelling races at the top of the ticket (Gov. Martinez race, Sen. Udall race and all three U.S. Rep. races), led many voters to simply stay home.

When a lot of people show up to vote, Democrats often win. Very few people showed up in 2014 and guess what? Democrats lost and in some cases, lost badly.

The silver lining if you’re a Democrat? Presidential years have been much more exciting in general for voters and the next one is just two years away.

5) Marijuana decriminalization has broad support in Bernalillo County and likely statewide.

That lack of turnout benefited Republicans in the way many analysts would expect, but even in a situation that was picture perfect for conservatives, marijuana decriminalization far exceeded expectations in a way state leaders should take notice of.

Bernalillo County provided the perfect example of this. As ProgressNow’s Pat Davis noted, marijuana decriminalization was more popular than Gov. Martinez within the county. Unofficially, the Governor won 90,493 votes, close to 55 percent. Despite fewer total votes cast on the issue overall, unofficial numbers show 91,387 votes for marijuana decriminalization, nearly 60 percent of votes cast on the issue.

Those numbers mean a significant chunk of both Democrats and Republicans supported that issue. The actual support in the county would likely be far far higher in a higher turnout year.

In a sit-down interview with News 13 Wednesday, Gov. Martinez remained firm on her position saying she’s still steadfastly opposed to lowering pot penalties. That means statewide change is a long shot at best.

However, county commissioners and city councilors will take notice, similar to when minimum wage earned similar levels of support in the city of Albuquerque in 2012. Expect a push by Bernalillo County commissioners to change the laws there if at all possible. Given that Mayor R.J. Berry is unlikely to change his stance though, action in the city of Albuquerque would seem unlikely.

6) King’s family ties, resume not enough to overcome Martinez money.

From the very beginning it always looked like an uphill climb for Gary King to topple Gov. Martinez.

His camp was likely banking on a few things. One, the aforementioned Democrat edge in New Mexico. Two, the King family name and voter familiarity with it. Three, voter backlash over a mostly flat economy and Martinez education reforms.

The second of those items helped King through a five-way primary. Although party insiders overwhelmingly rejected the attorney general at the pre-primary convention (King finished in fifth place), King’s name ID and a lack of a strong challenge gave him an easy primary win.

But in the general election, King’s campaign bank account turned out to be a major problem, at least in comparison to Martinez’s seven-figure war chest.

The Martinez campaign dramatically out-spent King the whole race, keeping King on the defensive while he scrambled to scrape together enough money for an effective defense. The gap in the polls led national Democrat groups to mostly steer clear of supporting King’s campaign. His main support came from enthusiastic Bill Richardson predictions and a late robo call from former President Bill Clinton.

King also shot himself in the foot with an unfortunate comment at a fundraiser calling out Martinez for lacking a “Latino heart”. He doubled down on that remark, crediting labor activist Dolores Huerta with making it. King even went on a “HEART of New Mexico” tour with Huerta down the stretch to drive the point home. That played right into the Martinez campaign’s hands and certainly didn’t seem to energize voters.

It didn’t help that every single newspaper endorsed Martinez. The Santa Fe Reporter was a notable exception.

Those chickens came to roost on election night when Martinez put a historic beating on King.

Given all of the negativity in the race, it’s perhaps not surprising that as of Wednesday afternoon, the King campaign had yet to make the typically customary concession call to Martinez.

7) National talk around Martinez is likely to grow.

As the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, Gov. Martinez had gained plenty of attention within a party seeking to better court Hispanic and female voters. She earned a prime speaking slot at the 2012 Republican National Convention and has had her name tossed around as a possible vice presidential candidate.

Given her strong ties to fellow governor and possible presidential hopeful Chris Christie, R-NJ, those whispers have only grown louder. Martinez, for her part, has vehemently and repeatedly denied any interest (including running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018 against Martin Heinrich).

However, Martinez’s convincing win in a blue state will not quiet the discussions about her as a national candidate especially as the GOP continues to try and build a broader base in presidential years.

8) Getting personal cost Dems resources.

Going back to the state House for a second, one of the nastiest rep races of the cycle was in a Republican leaning district.

Trying for a sneak attack or maybe to make a statement, outside left-leaning groups dropped a ton of money attempting to discredit and knock out high ranking Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Bernalillo, currently minority whip. In addition to dumping piles of mailers in the race, ProgressNow even put up a billboard with an old Gentry mugshot. Gentry fired back at challenger Bob Coffey too, albeit with mailers not with billboards.

The reasoning was understandable. Gentry had in many ways led House Republicans in recent years, holding up a budget and blocking things like a minimum wage constitutional amendment. He was also seen as the architect looking to make history in the New Mexico House for the GOP. Also, with retirements from other top Republicans, he was effectively the highest ranking member left. In other words, Gentry made for a tempting target.

But there was a huge problem with the strategy of spending against Gentry. Even in 2012, a presidential year when turnout and results benefitted Democrats, Gentry won his seat relatively comfortably (a 54-46 margin).

Given that there were other races on the radar that were much closer and possibly even winnable with more focused spending, going after Gentry was, quite frankly, a waste of money. If those groups had spent there, instead of against Gentry, there’s a possibility we’d be talking about a tied New Mexico House instead of a Republican-controlled one.

9) Manny gets another chance.

Lost in the big ticket, statewide races, was a pretty interesting battle for Bernalillo County Sheriff.

Former chief deputy and Republican James Scott Baird went up against former sheriff and Democrat Manny Gonzales III.

As Baird took pains to note in an interview with News 13, Gonzales “had his chance”. He was appointed to the job after Darren White left the post to take a job with the city of Albuquerque. In a bad year for Democrats, 2010, Gonzales lost his election bid to win the job to Republican Dan Houston.

But four years later, Houston himself was knocked out of the job in the Republican primary by Baird, a man who had helped get Houston elected in the first place. Meanwhile, Gonzales won his primary race to get another shot on the ballot.

On election night, Gonzales topped Baird, despite turnout numbers that would normally be a Republican’s dream. There were several issues floating around in the race, past and present, that could’ve affected the ultimate outcome and tipped it Manny’s way.

Gonzales earned a set of major and somewhat surprising endorsements. In 2010, the Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff’s Association backed Houston over Manny. In 2014, that key group ended up going with Gonzales. In a bit of a shocker, Manny also earned an endorsement from the often-conservative Albuquerque Journal editorial board. Meanwhile Houston, understandably bitter over Baird’s betrayal, endorsed Manny and recorded robo calls on his behalf.

Two, Baird’s past trio of misdemeanor DWI convictions may have turned off voters looking at the sheriff’s race.

Either way, Manny will now get a second chance for the next four years.

10) Confusing wording may have cost cost-saving constitutional amendment.

Constitutional Amendment 1 had a lot of potential to save cash-strapped school districts a significant amount of money and increase voter engagement in school districts.

Right now, school elections are required by the New Mexico Constitution to be held on different dates from other elections. As a result, turnout in those elections is often abysmally low. The provision itself was necessary before 1920 when women were only able to vote in school elections (hence the need for different dates). But obviously, that provision has been obsolete and unnecessary for close to 95 years.

Allowing school elections to be held on the same date as other elections is what a “Yes” vote on Constitutional Amendment 1 would’ve meant. Unfortunately you’d be hard-pressed to know that as a voter because this is how it was described on the ballot:

PROPOSING TO AMEND ARTICLE 7, SECTION 1 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF NEW MEXICO TO PROVIDE THAT SCHOOL ELECTIONS SHALL BE HELD AT DIFFERENT TIMES FROM PARTISAN ELECTIONS.

Of course, they already are held at different times from partisan elections and the ballot language seems to miss the point of what the constitutional amendment actually changed. New Mexico Watchdog first pointed the strange wording out.

Also not helping matters, the specific section of the New Mexico Constitution that needed to be fixed required a 75 percent vote to change. In 2008, the idea came very close to hitting that number. This year, nearly 59 percent of state voters voted yes on the idea, but that was not nearly enough to make the change.

It’s unclear how much the wording hurt, but it’s unlikely it helped. Back to the drawing board.

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