Swing State Psyche

News & Politics

When Barbara Blackwell moved to Santa Fe 24 years ago, she quickly realized that Republicans weren't welcome, so she kept her dirty little secret hidden.

"It's very awkward, and I guess I might have been a closet Republican for the first several years I lived here," says Blackwell, a local realtor. "For business reasons, there are a lot of people who are Republicans at heart who are registered Democrats."

Blackwell emerged from her shell and now is serving her second two-year term as Santa Fe County chairwoman of the New Mexico Republican Party. Her journey is indicative of the state Republican Party's growing strength and increasingly vocal presence in a swing state considered vitally important to both George Bush and John Kerry for the November presidential election.

While northern New Mexico still is considered a Democratic stronghold, New Mexicans have a split personality in party politics. Democrats hold a commanding 20-percent lead over Republicans in state voter registration rolls, so it should be a slam dunk for Democrats in any major political race. Yet New Mexicans have ping-ponged between Democratic and Republican governors, and the state has two popular, long-term US senators, one Republican and one Democrat.

"We are a swing state," says F Chris Garcia, a political science professor and former president of the University of New Mexico. "New Mexicans are willing to go with whatever person or policies that appeal to them, regardless of party affiliation."

Republican delegates from New Mexico are packing their bags for the Republican National Convention, scheduled from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Garcia believes Bush and Cheney will take the offensive at the Convention, despite past embarrassments over their tenuous justifications for the Iraq war. "Strategists will employ the adage that the best defense is a good offense," Garcia says. "You go on the offense and talk about all the good aspects, or you put a positive spin on everything as much as possible. The Republicans are very good at that, and I think that's what we'll see."

What remains to be seen is how New Mexico will factor into the presidential race, which is so polarized the candidates are spending much of their time and money searching for undecided voters in swing states such as New Mexico. Republicans also are appealing to Hispanics and young voters, with hopes of pulling New Mexico's five electoral votes for Bush. "I think there will be a lot less voting straight party line, just like it was four years ago," says Santa Fe City Councilor David Pfeffer, a Democrat who is endorsing Bush. "It could, honest to God, come down to a state like New Mexico."

New Mexico has an excellent track record for choosing presidents. Since statehood in 1912, New Mexicans have always voted with the majority of the country for the presidential winner, except in 1976 when Gerald Ford won more votes here than Jimmy Carter. The only other exception came in 2000 when Al Gore squeaked out a win in New Mexico by 366 votes. Technically, New Mexico was still voting with the majority of the country, but Bush won with a little help from the US Supreme Court and Florida election officials. "It's an amazing paradox – while New Mexico is so different demographically, it is so similar in its voting views [with the nation], at least for president," Garcia says.

New Mexico hasn't always leaned Democrat. The state was solidly Republican from 1912 until the 1930s, when the Depression put millions of people out of work and Franklin D Roosevelt offered government jobs through the New Deal.

New Mexico also has the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country, with the Census showing the state's Hispanic population increasing from 38 percent to 42 percent from 1990 to 2000. Forty-nine percent of Santa Fe County residents are Hispanic, with the percentages pushing higher for some other northern New Mexico counties.

While both Bush and Kerry have appealed to Hispanic voters nationwide, some typical Hispanic vote-getting issues don't always play well here. While Hispanics in larger border states often favor increased immigration from Mexico, many Hispanics in New Mexico trace their lineage to Spanish ancestors and don't necessarily welcome more recent immigrants. "We just have a [Hispanic] population here that is very established," Garcia says. "Mexican ties are much more distant than those in California or Arizona or Texas."

The Republican Party has tried to reach Hispanic voters, many of whom are Catholic, through the party's opposition to abortion, yet Garcia and even some local Republicans don't believe the abortion issue will translate into many votes for either party. "I don't know if that is going to be a big campaign issue," says John Dendahl, the outspoken former chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party.

Dendahl, who served as state Party chairman from 1994 to 2003, was known for his pit-bull style in attacking what he viewed as the excesses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Dendahl believes gay marriage has surpassed abortion as a conservative social issue, even though Republicans in Congress couldn't muster enough votes to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Gay marriage and abortion may motivate some voters, but both major parties must address an overriding issue: the Iraq war and America's fight against terrorism. While Democrats are still angry about the pre-emptive attack on Iraq and those missing weapons of mass destruction, Dendahl says the focus will shift to the future.

"Most people know now the economy is improving, and they aren't going to buy this idea that jobs are fleeing the country," Dendahl says. "I think what is going to be important come November is not whether we did the right thing to go into Iraq or not, but if the situation in Iraq is continuing to improve." Santa Fe County's voter registration rolls show 63 percent Democrat, 19 percent Republican, 3 percent Green and 15 percent other party or no party. Even with closet Republicans thrown in the mix, those numbers spell an uphill battle for Bob Parmelee, a retired computer manufacturing executive chosen as Santa Fe County chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. But he doesn't sound worried.

"We find the people on the left hysterical, uninformed and on the lunatic fringe on the issues. Any time I've had the opportunity to confront people on the facts, I've been able to move people toward the Bush position," Parmelee says. "The less people are informed, the more likely they are to vote Democrat."

Parmelee will be organizing volunteers and planning campaign events with hopes of reaching undecided voters before the November election. "I think New Mexico will go Republican, but that doesn't mean the official election results will go Republican. I think there is obvious fraud and corruption in the Democratic [state] government," he says. "Did we lose this election by
300-odd votes last time in New Mexico? Who knows? Nobody knows. You don't have to go to Florida to find a scandal. New Mexico is a scandal." Besides Republican appeals to Hispanics, Dendahl also has seen "a growing number of students on college campuses who are increasingly conservative."

Jeremiah Ritchie – a rising junior at UNM who is vice-chairman of the New Mexico Federation of College Republicans – says UNM has a very active group of young Republicans fighting the good fight at a very liberal campus. "We do definitely feel a strain in ideology, especially with the professors, and it becomes an issue in the classroom," he says. "Everybody knows [the youth vote] has been a resource that has been untapped. It has been a crowd that is hard to motivate, but we're trying to change that."
Republican students at UNM have canvassed precincts, walked door-to-door handing out campaign material and manned the phone banks for Bush and local Republican candidates. Students also protested outside an Albuquerque theater showing Fahrenheit 9/11. "I find a lot of motivation in the fact that the majority of the people around me feel
differently, and that helps me do my part to get out and help the president win the election," Ritchie says.

Perhaps no one illustrates New Mexico's split personality in party politics better than Santa Fe City Councilor David Pfeffer. Pfeffer, a registered Democrat who was elected to his first four-year term in 2002, has infuriated some former supporters by his increasingly conservative bent. The 59-year-old architect was the only City Councilor to vote against a 2002 Council resolution opposing the Iraq war. In ultra-liberal Santa Fe, jaws dropped when Pfeffer announced in June he is endorsing Bush's re-election campaign because of his support for the Iraq war. "The war is just, and Bush is taking the correct actions," Pfeffer says. "He is addressing the root cause of terrorism, which are the autocracies in the Middle East that suppress democracy, suppress freedom and terribly suppress women."

Pfeffer says his support for the Iraq war is colored by his experience in the Vietnam War. Pfeffer was drafted into the Army and patched bullet holes in US aircraft from 1966-67. "I didn't spend a year in Vietnam for nothing. I did those things for my country," he says. "I thought about it a great deal at the time, and I did my duty."

Even though Pfeffer says he later protested against the Vietnam War, he now takes issue with Iraq war protesters who say they are supporting American troops by trying to bring them home. "You can't support the troops unless you support their mission," he says. "Otherwise, you demoralize them, and that's life-threatening to them."

Pfeffer says he will not switch his party affiliation because he still disagrees with the Republican Party on many issues. He hasn't decided whether to seek re-election to the city council in 2006, and he doesn't know how his endorsement of Bush will affect his own political career. "I get angry letters saying 'You're finished. You're stupid. Thank God we only have to live with you for one term.' "But I also get [letters saying] 'I'm really glad you came out and did what you did because I'm a Democrat and feel the same way,'" Pfeffer says. "Obviously, it's upset people who naturally assumed that the Santa Fe City Council is going to be anti-Bush."

Of course, Pfeffer's endorsement delighted local Republicans who are heading for the bright lights and big city of New York for the Republican National Convention.

Twenty-one Republican delegates from New Mexico, including four from Santa Fe and Los Alamos, will attend the Republican National Convention next week. JoAnn Johnson, a delegate who also chairs the Los Alamos County branch of the state Republican Party, has high hopes for the Convention. "It certainly energizes the people, and it's the last spark that is needed before the election to get people behind their candidate," she says. Each presidential candidate usually gets a bump in poll ratings following his party's convention. Kerry only got a small bump after the Democratic National Convention in Boston, possibly because many voters already have made up their minds. (Some Democrats attribute the small increase to the Bush administration's sudden announcement of a seemingly new terrorism threat on the East Coast, which actually relied on old information gleaned from the Internet before 9/11.

"When people are threatened, they tend to rally behind the president," says Garcia at UNM. "They call it the rally-round-the-flag syndrome.") So what will Bush and Cheney need to do at the Republican National Convention to boost their poll ratings? "I'm not sure I have the answer to that question," Dendahl says.

Dendahl at a loss for words? Is the Republican firebrand growing soft in his old age? Not to fear; he quickly regrouped. "The president and the vice president need to come out of the Convention as they are right now, appearing that they are in control of the government," Dendahl says. "They are calm, maintaining a steady course and continuing to instill confidence in people."

The national conventions, which used to nominate presidential candidates and have real debates over party platforms, have been reduced to major pep rallies, with free television airtime for each party to pummel the public with optimistic speeches and political rhetoric. Critics from both major parties are questioning the continuing need, and the spiraling cost, of the conventions. Congress approved $50 million in taxpayer funding for security at both the Democrat and Republican conventions. The parties pay for the conventions themselves, while the lavish dinners and galas thrown by corporations and lobbyists use a gaping campaign finance loophole to wine, dine and influence convention-goers. Dendahl attended the 1996 and 2000 Republican Conventions in San Diego and Philadelphia. "I had a good time. There always are a lot of very nice parties," he says. Yet Dendahl concedes the conventions are "awfully expensive" and "might be becoming a white elephant." State Rep. Jeanette Wallace (R-Los Alamos) will serve as a Convention delegate from Los Alamos County, the only Republican enclave in northern New Mexico. Wallace believes opposition to the Iraq war will be a "big stumbling block" for Bush, who needs to give more concrete answers at the Convention about his plans for US troops in Iraq. "We want to know as citizens exactly when this is going to end and how it's going to end and whether we've resolved anything. It's no different than the Vietnam War," she says. "We need to say, 'This is going to end at some point in our life.'"

Regardless of what happens at the Convention, questions regarding how New Mexico's five electoral votes will swing in November remain. As in 2000, will New Mexico again be a lone Democratic "blue state" in a sea of Republican red states swallowing the Southwest? Or will closet Republicans and conservative Democrats push New Mexico to Bush this time? Given that Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes in 2000, it most likely will be another nail-biter.

"I'm getting excited about it now," Wallace says. "I think every vote counts, so New Mexico will be extremely important."

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