It’s on to November’s hard-fought, dirty and exhausting battles
Democrats start this general-election season with the advantage in the U.S. Senate and 1st Congressional District races, but the Senate race will be hotly contested, and CD1 might too; meanwhile, the battle for the Roundhouse will be hard-fought.
There’s lots to analyze about why Tuesday’s primary turned out as it did and what it means for November. Let’s get right into it. First on the federal races:
Democrats have the edge
Polls have consistently shown Democrat Martin Heinrich with a slight edge over Republican Heather Wilson in the U.S. Senate race. That could change, particularly if the presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama tightens.
His advantage is only sleight. Wilson is one of the most disciplined campaigners around and she has run a stellar campaign to this point. She rarely makes mistakes, and when her opponents do she pounces.
Heinrich is going to have to run a near-perfect campaign. He’s done great so far, but he’s facing a more difficult opponent now.
Either candidate could win this race.
Michelle Lujan Grisham won an impressive victory in the hotly contested 1st Congressional District Democratic primary. Opponent Eric Griego wanted it as much as Grisham did, and most thought going into Tuesday that he had a better ground game.
So Grisham showed impressive strength.
Perhaps the difference was that, while the two spent the last week nuking each other through paid media, Grisham’s attacks were more effective. Meanwhile, she spent the week appearing confident, peppy and upbeat, while the Griego campaign seemed worried.
Grisham has momentum and she has proven she can raise money – something Republican Janice Arnold-Jones has yet to do. For that reason alone, Grisham starts out with the advantage.
Republicans will rally around Arnold-Jones, and she has worked in the last few months to put a credible campaign organization in place. She has the ability to compete. But it’s time to raise big money. Grisham will. Arnold-Jones has to keep up, starting today.
This can be a close race, but it’s not yet clear that it will be.
On to the state legislative contests:
The Roundhouse shuffle
The Roundhouse shuffle that began earlier this year with lots of legislative retirements continued on Tuesday. In the Las Cruces-area House District 35 Democratic primary, Jeff Steinborn unseated Antonio Lujan not because of help from outside groups or negative attacks, but simply because he worked harder. Grassroots campaigning won the race.
Incumbent Sen. David Ulibarri and Rep. Richard Vigil were unseated along with Lujan. But it wasn’t an anti-incumbent night. Some, including Sens. Pete Campos, Phil Griego and John Arthur Smith and Rep. Dona Irwin, fought off tough challenges.
There were some common storylines to weave between some races. Progressives had their eyes on a number of high-profile races and tried to unseat some incumbents. They weren’t successful in many instances. By contrast, Reform New Mexico Now, the Super PAC supportive of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, was successful. Seven of eight candidates it backed won.
Still, some progressive-backed candidates did win, including Christine Trujillo in the House District 25 Democratic primary race. Progressive Maxine Velasquez ended Election Day leading in a tough four-way primary by a handful of votes against her closest opponent, and she or her closest opponent will unseat Ulibarri.
While Martinez has egg on her face from Spears’ defeat, she comes out ahead in Tuesday’s primary. Her political adviser, Jay McCleskey, revealed that he’s also the political adviser to the Reform N.M. Now PAC. He said it spent $100,000 in the last week of the election on two dozen mailers and radio ads. It saturated the eight districts in which it got involved.
Much of its media was highly negative, like mailers slamming Jack Sullivan (here and here) and Eleanor Chavez (here). Both were progressive candidates who failed to defeat more conservative Democrats.
Of course, the Super PAC wasn’t the only deciding factor in races in which it played. In the House District 46 Democratic primary race, the PAC sent out mailers supporting Carl Trujillo, who won, and slamming his opponent David Coss. But that alone didn’t win the race for Trujillo.
Coss won big in Santa Fe, where he’s mayor, and lost in the rural areas. It seems that his elected position in Santa Fe was, ultimately, something that made rural voters uneasy – in spite of how anyone else spun it.
Reform N.M. Now didn’t go negative in every race. It told a positive message about Rep. Sandra Jeff, for example, and she won.
At the end of the day, the efforts of Reform N.M. Now, while impressive, didn’t remake the Legislature. In five of the races in which its candidates won, the PAC succeeded in helping defend Democratic incumbents who have already been supportive of at least some of Martinez’s proposals.
It helped elect Carl Trujillo, who faces no Republican in November, but that appeared to be more about defeating Coss. It’s not clear that Trujillo will be a Martinez ally in the Legislature.
Defeating Chavez in the Senate District 14 race was significant, because Michael Padilla is likely to vote with the governor on some issues and replaces the progressive favorite Eric Griego, who gave up the seat to run for Congress.
Progressives also gained a little ground. Jacob Candelaria won his Senate primary and faces no Republican opposition. He will replace the more conservative Bernadette Sanchez in the Legislature next year. Christine Trujillo’s House victory is significant, and she’s likely to join the Legislature next year.
If she holds on, Velasquez’s win will be impressive, but she’ll go on to face a tough general-election battle with Republican Vickie Perea. Whether this seat, which has been held by a moderate Democrat, will move to the left or right isn’t clear.
The bottom line is that there are still lots of battles to be fought in November over the makeup of the Legislature. Martinez has threatened to defeat incumbents who have stood in her way, but on Tuesday she succeeded primarily in defending those who haven’t.
The battle continues
Much of what happens in November will come down to how the presidential race drives turnout – or doesn’t. The most recent poll of New Mexico has Obama at 48 percent, Romney at 35 percent and Libertarian Gary Johnson at 12 percent.
Turnout was light in Tuesday’s primary and, unless Romney closes the gap and makes New Mexico a swing state, in November it won’t be as high as it was four years ago, when Obama was elected in a wave that carried many other Democrats to victory.
Democrats need that Obama wave again if they’re going to gain significant ground in the Legislature. It would also help Heinrich and Grisham.
The absence of such a wave would give Martinez and McCleskey an opening to target individual legislative races, nuke some candidates and prop up others, and perhaps pick up a few seats in the Legislature.
A Romney wave in New Mexico, on the other hand, is simply not likely to happen.
The bottom line: Organization, determination, the strength of individual candidates, spending by outside groups and negative advertising all shaped Tuesday’s primary. Look for the same to happen in November, and for these battles to once again be hard-fought, dirty and exhausting.
This article has been updated to clarify that Velasquez’s race is still up in the air.
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