Election 2004

New Mexico Trending Blue

Recent political dynamics and voter mobilization efforts give a positive outlook for Democrats in New Mexico in 2004.
Despite a razor-thin majority of 366 votes for Al Gore in the 2000 election, New Mexico appears to be turning from purple to blue. There are good indications that the Democrats will make a strong showing there in 2004, in part because of the popularity of its new governor, Bill Richardson.

A Zogby Interactive Poll released on July 14, which tracks the New Mexico numbers for the presidential race every two weeks, had Kerry leading Bush 49% to 42%, with Nader at 3% and undecided at 6%. A July 9th American Research Group poll had almost identical numbers, with 49% of likely voters for Kerry if the presidential election were being held today, and 42% for Bush. A total of 3% of likely voters say they would vote for Ralph Nader and 6% of likely voters said they were undecided.

If this trend continues, and it is hard to see it shifting, it suggests that Democrats, who have targeted the Southwest as an area of opportunity, should worry less about New Mexico – where they are well organized and have a number of electoral advantages over the GOP – and worry more about neighboring states in contention like Nevada, where the political dynamics are less favorable.

What a difference two years makes

Two years ago, the Governor of New Mexico was Gary Johnson, a wealthy Republican businessman, who cut a major profile nationally as an anomalous drug war reformer, but who, except for that one issue, was a Bush supporter and followed the Republican platform right down the line.

Enter Bill Richardson: Richardson was a New Mexico congressman before first serving in the Clinton Cabinet as Energy Secretary, then as Ambassador to the United Nations. Richardson, whose mother is from Mexico, is wildly popular among Latino voters, and gets strong support from Native Americans, moderates, and liberals. This broad support translated to a 17-point victory over his Republic opponent (the Green candidate got 5%) in 2002, and Richardson has no doubt significantly expanded the base of Democratic voters in the State since then.

Since his election, Richardson has governed like a centrist, pushing hard for improvements in education – creating a Secretary post to oversee the schools and raising teachers' pay – and not so hard on the issue of health care. Under Richardson, the staggering health care system in New Mexico has worsened; the cost of insurance premiums and prescription drugs continue to soar. (For more on this, see Alternet's article by Dan Frosch)

Meanwhile Richardson been visible nationally, making frequent talking head appearances on the national television. His profile among Latinos solidified when he gave a response to President Bush's State of the Union address on Univision, the flagship Spanish-speaking channel in the United States. Being rumored as a serious candidate for vice president didn't hurt, either. Richardson's reputation as a crack fundraiser is also growing. Albuquerque political consultant Eli Lee says, "people want to meet Richardson – they want to say they know the guy who may be the first Latino president."

Richardson is also evolving into a Democratic Party powerhouse with his Moving America Forward PAC; an organization focused on registering Latino voters in eight states that have significant Hispanic populations. There is plenty of work on the ground in New Mexico, and the Richardson effort is apparently going great guns in Florida as well, where there is a 36-person canvass in operation. But Richardson has steered clear of Nevada, where local groups and unions are targeting the Latino vote.

Democrats prevailing statewide

Another political factor that is helping New Mexico trend blue is the fact that Democrats look strong in this year's three House races. In New Mexico's second congressional district, a traditionally conservative stronghold in the southern part of the state, Gary King, the popular son of a former governor, has a decent chance of knocking off first-term Republican Congressman Steve Pearce. In the third district, which includes Santa Fe, Democratic incumbent Tom Udall, the son of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, is secure.

In the first district, which includes Albuquerque, Richard Romero, who lost to incumbent Heather Wilson 55 to 45 in 2002, is expected to run a much stronger race. Wilson is facing attacks from Romero that she is a tool of Tom Delay's right-wing machine in Congress, and her recent votes in Congress show that she's feeling pressure to demonstrate that she has "independent" views. According to political journalist and blogger Joe Monahan, "Wilson was only one of three Republicans out of 220 to vote to cut CIA funding by 25 percent until the Bush Administration turns over all documents dealing with the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Heather Wilson has cast other votes that are "clearly aimed at positioning herself as an 'independent' voice for the Albuquerque district and not the 'rubber stamp' for the president that her opponent Romero accuses her of being," writes Monahan. So in the state's three congressional districts, two Republican incumbents are running scared, and the Democratic incumbent is sitting pretty. This combination should increase turnout for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Bubbling issues

It is fair to question whether a range of issues troubling New Mexico will have a significant impact on the presidential race. Political consultant Eli Lee, who has Richardson's PAC among his clients, says he has seen a number of polls taken of New Mexico voters, and with the exception of some regional issues like environmental campaigns aimed at protecting natural resources, there is no defining issue for New Mexico in this election cycle. "I think this race will be decided more on the character of the candidates and the base building that is going on across the state than by any specific issue," said Lee.

While no issue may be defining, few issues percolating in New Mexico are falling the in the Republicans' favor. According to Tim McGivern, news editor of the Weekly Alibi, the second largest paper in the state, "the Bush/Cheney energy policy is pissing off ranchers in the northern part of the state, where the Bureau of Land Management is aggressively taking advantage of sub-surface land rights and initiating drilling."

Another point that McGivern makes is that there is a huge National Guard presence in New Mexico – many families need the small extra income in the second poorest state in the country. The fact that Guard members have been called up, tours extended, and soldiers killed while major questions about the rational for the war continue to run in the news, suggests that the military vote may not vote en bloc for Republicans.

But not all factors point in the direction of Democrats for the election. McGivern believes that since much of New Mexico's Latino population is strongly Catholic, they may decide to vote against the Democrats because of their pro-choice platform.

Getting out the vote

In terms of the voter registration and mobilization campaign underway in New Mexico, there are sophisticated efforts that are showing success in registering new voters, particularly Latino, Native American and young voters – a factor consultant Eli Lee thinks will be key for the November elections. On the other hand, Republican registration efforts are far less visible at this juncture.

New Mexico is somewhat of an epicenter of the many national groups who are targeting swing states and underrepresented constituencies. Some of these efforts are non partisan, while others, including Americans Coming Together (ACT) and Gov. Richardson's Moving America Forward are PACS and 527s, which are permitted to be partisan as long as their efforts are not coordinated with a candidate. At last count there were more than a dozen groups operating in the state, mostly centered in Albuquerque. In addition, national support has come into New Mexico to promote voting on reservations, and there is a collective sense that the Native American vote will be a lot greater than in 2000.

According to several people, at least among the non partisan groups, there is a very cooperative spirit aimed at avoiding the overlap and competitiveness that have hampered voter registration efforts in the past. Re-Envisioning New Mexico, a local organization, deserves credit for ensuring that not too many toes are being stepped on. But also in the mix are Southwest Voter, Southwest Organzing Project (SWOP) , Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, ACORN, NAACP, Clean Water Action, and The New Voters Project (a project of the PIRGS) as well as some private companies hired to register voters.

James Moore, the State Director of the New Voters Project (sponsored by Public Interest Research Groups) was especially upbeat about efforts to reach register new voters in New Mexico. For him it is all about "getting the political system to pay attention to the young demographic – and for that you need political clout." When I recently visited the New Voters Project office, it was practically empty because most of the staff - 18 people – were in the field canvassing for voters. Deputy Director Joan Javier said that the goal is to increase youth participation by "going out and meeting youth where they are – at the 13 different colleges, at rodeos, clubs." The New Voter Project is also making a GOTV (Get Out the Vote) effort to make sure the elusive young voters get to the polls once they have registered. "Canvassers are collecting e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers since students are constantly on the move, " Javier says.

A blue New Mexico?

So there you have it, the ingredients for a Democratic Blue New Mexico: A dynamic, popular Democratic governor, competitive House races where the Democrats could take two House seats from the GOP, and very few compelling issues that favor Republicans at the state level, or nationally. Moreover, the sophisticated and well-resourced efforts to expand the electorate among traditionally Democratic voters is in full swing. A recent visit by the newly minted Kerry/Edwards ticket, where 10,000 people jammed the Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, perhaps put the icing on the cake.

Republicans might now be thinking how to fend of the Democrats in Arizona, Nevada, and particularly in Colorado, where Ken Salazar, the popular attorney general and favorite in the race for the Senate seat against the beer magnate Peter Coors, is responsible for turning Colorado to a swing purple state from a red one. In any case, the next focus may very well be on Nevada, where from the Democrats' perspective there needs to be a close look at making organizing efforts among the large Latino population in Las Vegas, and perhaps a more visible Bill Richardson carrying his charismatic message into other states. One assumes that the Republicans in the Southwest will not be excited to see Bill Richardson-Lopez, as some call him, making visits to their state.
Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.
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