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New Mexico gubernatorial candidates enter final stretch with eyes on office

October 8, 2018

Thirty more days with four years at stake.

A month separates New Mexico from Election Day and its next governor after eight years under Gov. Susana Martinez.

For the candidates seeking to succeed the term-limited Republican, seeking to ride an unprecedented oil production boom to a more prosperous era for basic state services, seeking to transform the state’s one-note economy and abysmal record on education, these will be the most important four weeks of their political lives.

And for the state, the Nov. 6 election presents a choice between two well-known members of Congress, dramatically different in both personal style and policy approach, each with a distinct vision of what New Mexico should be through 2022.

The stage is set for a sprint to the finish as observers from across the political spectrum say Michelle Lujan Grisham can’t take her polling lead for granted and Steve Pearce must stay on the attack in trying to make up the difference.

Lujan Grisham, 58, a Democrat from Albuquerque, has led in every statewide survey. Having replenished its campaign war chest after a contentious and expensive three-way primary contest, her campaign has emphasized Lujan Grisham’s experience as a state Cabinet secretary across three administrations in outlining a platform she says will deliver enhanced investments in education, an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy and a rebuilt behavioral health system.

“It’s hers to lose,” said Lonna Atkeson, political science professor at the University of New Mexico. “Eight years of an extremely unpopular Republican governor, an unpopular Republican president — those two facts alone make it hers to lose.”

Pearce, 71, the laconic Republican from Hobbs, has kept himself within striking distance with a moderate message centered on job creation — precisely the kind of tack a Republican needs to take to have any chance of victory in a blue-leaning state in a blue-leaning year, said Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff.

“That’s a smart strategy,” Sanderoff said. “You can’t run far to the right in New Mexico, especially in this current political environment. … [Pete] Domenici, Garrey Carruthers, Gary Johnson — even Susana Martinez ran willing to accept Medicaid expansion. And so Pearce is doing the same.”

Sanderoff’s Research & Polling Inc., in a mid-September survey conducted for the Albuquerque Journal, determined Lujan Grisham led Pearce by 7 points, 50 percent to 43 percent. The remainder were undecided or declined to state their preference.

Lujan Grisham’s lead has hovered in that area in other polls, somewhere between 13 percent and the margin of error.

Party identification in the Journal poll was a clear indicator of support: Lujan Grisham drew 87 percent of Democratic respondents, while Pearce earned 86 percent of Republican support.

In the crucial and heavily populated Albuquerque metropolitan area, Lujan Grisham led by 12 points — 53 percent to 41 percent. Independent voters statewide, meanwhile, were largely for Pearce, 55 percent to 37 percent.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, and in a midterm election year where President Donald Trump’s inflammatory administration is foremost in many voters’ minds, Pearce is likely to continue his concerted effort to win crossover support, having sought to highlight the endorsements of a few Democrats who have been drawn to his argument that he will be a different sort of Republican than Martinez — one who can work across the aisle in the Legislature.

“People are divided on the D and the R and not who’s the best person for the job — and that is absolutely idiotic to me,” said Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks, a Democrat who has endorsed Pearce.

Pearce, for his part, said he’s not contriving an image of a middle-of-the-road Republican. A social conservative who has voted with the Trump line 90 percent of the time, according to political analysts at FiveThirtyEight, he has run a campaign focused on four bread-and-butter issues: a diversified economy, an improved education system, fixes to the state’s chronic crime problems and alleviating poverty.

“The thing I hear from people, ‘Oh, you’re not anything like they portray you,’ ” the seven-term congressman said in a recent interview.

“Don’t be fooled,” countered Marg Elliston, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “Steve Pearce is trying to put on this act, like he’s not a member of the Freedom Caucus … like he’s not one of the most strident as far as taking away the safety nets that so many New Mexicans rely on.”

Lujan Grisham has rooted her campaign in policy programs she says she will be well-positioned to administer given her experience in state government. In a series of emailed answers to questions, Lujan Grisham said she was optimistic and that her campaign planned to reach as many as 100,000 voters as she canvasses the state in the final weeks.

“That said, I never get too comfortable, because this is going to remain a competitive election through the next month, and we’re going to treat it that way,” she said.

Lujan Grisham, running out ahead, has an arguably tougher task this final month, some observers said, floating the idea it might be more difficult to manage a lead than it is to simply chase.

“You don’t need to take chances,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “However, you can’t play not to lose. There’s that tension between the fire and brimstone or just being sure not to say anything off message that can be misconstrued. But hopefully Democratic candidates play to win, because playing to win or being strong on what you believe in is what’s really going to drive voters.”

Lujan Grisham has largely left the work of critiquing Pearce to outside groups. Whether, over the homestretch, the congresswoman should more aggressively target Pearce’s congressional voting record or his enthusiastic 2016 support for Trump, whose job approval rating in New Mexico is south of 40 percent, is a difficult calculation, Atkeson said.

“Maybe that’s an experience thing. This is her first really tough statewide campaign. It’s a really different situation if you’re running against Janice Arnold-Jones, who can’t raise a dime,” Atkeson said, referring to the Republican candidate in the heavily Democratic congressional district Lujan Grisham represents. Lujan Grisham defeated Arnold-Jones by 20 points in the 2012 for that Albuquerque-area seat.

Pearce, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, maintained a lead in cash on hand: $1.88 million to Lujan Grisham’s $1.28 million. Lujan Grisham has raised more and spent more, particularly over the primary election period when Pearce had no opponents and Lujan Grisham had two. But Pearce’s campaign also won a court fight with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office allowing him to infuse cash from his congressional war chest into his gubernatorial bid — plus six figures’ worth of attorneys fees from the state.

With that cash advantage, the Pearce campaign will be able to continue its attempts to dent Lujan Grisham’s credibility with negative television advertisements. Pearce has unleashed a series of television spots that seek to highlight Lujan Grisham’s ties to the scandal-tainted administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson and slash her for her role in managing the state’s high-risk insurance pool — including one ad that attacked a Santa Fe lawyer dying of pancreatic cancer who supports Lujan Grisham.

“We know voters can’t stand the negative ads,” Sanderoff said. “They say that in focus groups all the time. But it doesn’t mean they don’t work.”

State Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, observed that many voters are only now tuning in and said Pearce must keep to the course he’s on — and continue to raise questions about Lujan Grisham’s work managing the high-risk pool. (Lujan Grisham has vigorously defended that work.)

“When you think about the state Supreme Court appointments, when you think about the business portion of New Mexico, the oil and gas side, I think [Pearce] is resonating with people,” Townsend said. “He has to resonate with people [and] say, ‘I’m the candidate that supports your industry, whatever your industry is. I’m pro-work, I’m pro-jobs. And I’m less about government and more about you.’

“I think he’s going to have to continue exactly what he is doing,” he added.

For Lujan Grisham, the final weeks will present opportunities to seal the deal, and as many possible paths forward.

“We don’t want to settle for a field goal, because you never know,” Maestas said. “I say let’s just punch it into the end zone and leave no doubt.”

Keeping the campaign on an even keel, on the other hand, has its advantages, too.

“Lujan Grisham is not positioning herself as a progressive liberal Democrat,” Sanderoff said. “We’ve seen some progressive Democrats scratch their heads at that strategy. … But it is not an unreasonable strategy.”

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