Vasquez faces tough reelection challenge as opposition presses past allegations

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Jun. 16—The pressure is on New Mexico's freshman congressman leading up to the November general election as the GOP seeks to expand its majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and reclaim a seat that has flipped back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

Considered one of the most competitive House races in the country, the battle for New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District seat pits first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez against the previous officeholder — Republican Yvette Herrell — in a rematch likely to generate big spending and vicious attacks.

"I'm not taking this race for granted," Vasquez said in an interview Friday.

Neither is the GOP, which continues to go after Vasquez and try to exploit a string of recent reports, which include that an arrest warrant was executed against Vasquez over outstanding traffic tickets from more than two decades ago and allegations that he tried to flush marijuana down a toilet after police were dispatched to his apartment to investigate a noise complaint in 2005 and also that he uttered a racial slur against a former colleague the year before.

"I have not and would never use language like this," Vasquez said, referring to a report unearthed by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, alleging he called a Black co-worker a derogatory term.

"This attack is categorically false," he said, adding he's not worried about records "from over 20 years ago" the GOP and the National Republican Congressional Committee are using to "misinform voters."

"What I am worried about is Yvette Herrell being on the record as a congresswoman saying she wants to ban all abortion and the fact that she's trying to hide that now," he said.

Herrell was unavailable for an interview but her campaign shared a recent op-ed in which she, too, charged she is the victim of misinformation.

"We're getting close to election season, which for me means again preparing to see and hear millions of dollars in advertising from liberal special interest groups smearing me and misleading New Mexico voters about my positions," she wrote.

In a statement, Herrell accused Vasquez of having a "dangerous and racist past" that finally caught up with him.

"His anti-law enforcement, open-border stances clearly make him unfit to serve New Mexicans," she said.

Herrell's op-ed deals specifically with her position on abortion and comes after the Huffington Post reported on a "newly discovered video" in which Herrell said in 2020 she wished "we could have eliminated all abortion" in New Mexico. The report also noted Herrell cut all references to abortion from her website and campaign materials.

While she is "pro-life" and believes "every human life is a sacred gift from God," Herrell wrote in the op-ed she supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, as well as "increased access to birth control, education that can reduce unintended pregnancies, and fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization."

"When the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in 2022, it returned the responsibility of setting abortion policy to the states," she wrote. "The people of each state must now decide for themselves what limits should be placed on abortion."

In the 2nd Congressional District, voters will also have to decide whether to replace Vasquez with Herrell, who held the seat before him.

The majority-Hispanic district is 42% Democrat, 31% Republican, 1% Libertarian and 26% "other," according to the most recent voter registration data.

In the 2022 gubernatorial race, Republican Mark Ronchetti won the district narrowly with 94,914 votes compared with 94,290 votes for Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who won the statewide race.

Albuquerque political analyst and longtime pollster Brian Sanderoff noted Vasquez won by less than a percentage point when he squared off against Herrell two years ago. He anticipates another close race in November.

"The nature of the district and the existing boundaries after redistricting made it a swing district," he said. "Under the prior boundaries, it was a strong lean Republican district, and it's now a strong swing district in which either party can win it."

Herrell blamed redistricting for her 2022 loss, saying at the time Democrats in Santa Fe had concentrated power "in urban areas at the expense of rural New Mexico voices," according to published reports. Herrell also expressed confidence she could win the seat back in 2024.

Herrell benefitted from high voter turnout in the last presidential election in 2020 when she beat former U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small by nearly 8 percentage points under the previous district lines. She had lost to Torres Small in 2018, a non-presidential election year, by less than 2 percentage points.

"The times and the mood impact election outcomes, so we're not really sure what November's going to look like yet in terms of overall political mood," Sanderoff said.

Sanderoff said "a big question mark" is whether President Joe Biden can drive turnout among younger voters as former President Barack Obama was able to do and whether Trump will be able to motivate Republicans to vote in November.

Trump "did it when Herrell won it in 2020 ... but the nature of the district is different," he said. "Last time, she had the whole oil patch — all of Eddy, Lea, Chaves and Lincoln [counties] were in the district — so she greatly benefitted from it. Now those counties are divided among the three [congressional] districts, so it's less predictable as to whether she will benefit from it."

Under the old boundaries, Republicans could be more "homogeneously conservative" in their messaging.

"But the district is much more diverse now," he said, adding he remembers a TV ad from 2022 with Herrell getting a latte at what appeared to be a coffee shop in Albuquerque's South Valley, part of which is now in the 2nd Congressional District.

"The nature of the campaigning has changed under the new district boundaries," he said.

What hasn't changed, though, is the cutthroat world of politics.

The recent reports Vasquez had an arrest warrant and allegedly used a racial slur will likely generate attack ads and put the freshman congressman on the defensive, Sanderoff said.

"We haven't heard the end of this," he said. "At a minimum, it puts him on the defensive where he allocates part of his limited resources to playing defense or to defending himself on these allegations, so it will definitely impact the campaign. Any controversy hurts [a candidate] in a close race."

Delanie Bomar, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, indicated the allegations will continue to haunt Vasquez through election season.

"We are going to make sure every voter in New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District knows about Vasquez's decadeslong trouble with the law, him calling a colleague the n-word, his open-border policies and him calling to defund the police," she said, referring to a 2020 TV interview in which Vasquez, then a Las Cruces city councilor, said, "It's not just about defunding police, it's about defunding a system that privileges white people over everyone else."

Herrell's campaign said New Mexicans can expect to see information about Vasquez's supposed "anti-law enforcement" past "anywhere and everywhere."

"Simply put: Gabe can't outrun his deeply troubled past anymore," the campaign said.

Jessica Velasquez, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said the congressional race is a priority "above and beyond" the state party.

The Democratic National Committee recently announced it was investing an additional $70,000 for organizing staff to help Vasquez's reelection as well as other Democrats up and down the ballot.

"The DNC and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] are investing in New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, and one thing everyone is very certain of is the road to flipping the U.S. House of Representatives blue runs right through New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District," Velasquez said.

Velasquez said Vasquez has proven himself an effective representative during his first term in office.

"He's showing up and putting in the work in every community and especially in communities that perhaps did not support him in the last election, like Catron County," she said. "He delivers real results for the people of his district, and that's why I believe that we have such enthusiasm and momentum for this race."

Like Vasquez, Velasquez said reproductive rights are on the ballot in November.

"Yvette Herrell is trying desperately to run from her record because she knows that extreme positions on abortion are out of step with the will of the majority of Americans," she said. "The Huffington Post reported that she took down and tried to hide her previous stances on abortion by scrubbing her website. That's an attempt to fool voters. She's trying to walk back her extreme, anti-choice positions."

Velasquez said former President Donald Trump's endorsement of Herrell will only hurt her in New Mexico.

"Republicans as of late have fallen all over themselves to win Donald Trump's support," she said. "That effort will backfire here in New Mexico because we've seen it time and again that those MAGA Republican extreme [positions] do not reflect what's on people's hearts and minds here in this state. With a convicted felon's endorsement, I'm not sure that that will actually do Yvette Herrell the favor that she's hoping it will."

Herrell's campaign said Herrell is proud to have Trump's support and noted she flipped the seat the last time Trump was on the ballot.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, predicts the race between Vasquez and Herrell will be "very close" and "very competitive."

"The most significant thing is the landscape changed between 2020 and 2022," he said. "People are really feeling the effects of inflation. They're worried about crime and the open border thing, so I believe it's going to be a significantly different race than back in 2022."

Pearce, who represented the congressional district from 2003 to 2009 and from 2011 to 2019, said the "overall situation in the country" makes Vasquez vulnerable.

Voters will have to decide whether the recent string of unflattering reports will factor into their decision, Pearce said.

"If you're watching carefully, you notice that no major news outlet has carried almost any of these stories, and it's hard to convince people with 30-second TV ads of something like this," he said. "If it were Republicans, it would be front-page news for weeks and weeks and weeks, everything from the racial slur to the whatever. ... You look at all of that and say, 'OK, I just don't think this guy was the right choice to represent the average New Mexican in Congress,' and I think that is one of the questions that is going to be dealt with."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.