New Mexico Republicans moving state convention to Texas

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Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·5 min read
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Apr. 20—The Republican Party of New Mexico is holding its annual state convention next month, but it won't be in-state.

The three-day event, dubbed Operation Freedom, will be held in Amarillo, Texas, which has much looser COVID-19 restrictions than New Mexico, where mass gatherings under even the most lenient conditions are limited to 150 people.

"It was named 'Operation Freedom' because had we been able to have it in our own state, we would not have to travel," Kim Skaggs, the state GOP's executive director, said in a telephone interview Monday.

New Mexico's COVID-19 restrictions, some of the most stringent in the nation, are likely to be a hot topic during the convention, particularly since Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, both Republicans, will be the keynote speakers.

Noem has been an outspoken critic of business shutdowns and mask mandates, and Jordan recently sparred with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, asserting Americans' liberties and freedoms have been under attack over the past year.

The New Mexico GOP's event will be held May 14-16 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Amarillo Downtown. Though she didn't have the details, Skaggs said the hotel is imposing a mask mandate.

"We will follow every single law and requirement, whether it be a requirement of the property that we'll be on or state law, as always," she said.

A representative for Embassy Suites did not return a message seeking comment.

The gathering is projected to have a $346,000 economic impact in the city of Amarillo, said Kashion Smith, executive director of that city's convention and visitors bureau.

"We are happy to host them," Smith said, adding that Amarillo has already hosted agriculture and equestrian events from New Mexico.

"Texas did open back up, and we have wider restrictions, so that's worked for some of the groups," she said. "Gov. [Greg] Abbott actually pulled the mask mandate and opened up [the state for business] completely."

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson was unavailable for comment Monday, but she recently told state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce during his weekly radio broadcast that her city always appreciated "when we have visitors from New Mexico come and spend time and their dollars in Amarillo."

"Our hoteliers and our restaurant owners and our retailers are all excited about the economic stimulus that this program will bring to the city of Amarillo," she said in the radio program. "But then we're also excited locally on a political level because we support the conservative values, the capitalism. The things that the Republican Party represent match so well in Amarillo, which is the heart of one of the most conservative congressional districts in the nation."

Nelson said Amarillo represents the "conservative heartland" of the nation.

"These two speakers will reflect that, and we want to give them a huge Amarillo welcome," she said, referring to Noem and Jordan. "Of course, we support their positions."

Pearce, who also was unavailable for comment, said on the radio that New Mexico "desperately needs to learn some of the lessons" from Amarillo.

"That's going to be one of the messages that we're looking for as we visit there," he said.

Pearce, who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2018, said the Republican Party of New Mexico is sparing no expense for the convention.

"When it came time to look at our budget for that, we all looked at each other [and] the board said, 'Look, we've been shut down for a year. People just need to get out and feel like they're getting special treatment.' So, we're taking the top-of-the line steak the first night. No rubber chicken on either night ... but we decided to spend at the top of the budget, not the bottom of the budget, and people are excited to be a part of it."

Nelson thanked Pearce for his leadership.

"And thank you for what you do for the party and thank you for what you do to spread conservative values, not just in New Mexico and now in Amarillo, but across the nation," she told Pearce. "It's much appreciated, and we support you here."

Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham's press secretary, said in an email the administration looks forward "to a safe resumption of larger gatherings later this year" as New Mexico's nation-leading vaccination effort continues its progress.

"In the meantime," she wrote, "if an organization can't be bothered to adhere to reasonable health guidelines in a pandemic, by all means, spread the virus elsewhere. Hopefully I don't need to elaborate on the inherent risks to health and safety posed by mass gatherings amid an ongoing pandemic."

Skaggs said the state GOP expects no more than 450 people at the event. So far, about 250 people have registered for the event and purchased tickets, which cost $250 per person and $450 per couple, plus a processing fee.

Skaggs said the party would've preferred to hold the state convention in New Mexico. This year's will be the first ever held out of state, she said.

"It's heartbreaking because we would much rather support local," she said. "But we've been forced to make a decision."

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