NM set for competitive governor's race

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Jun. 9—SANTA FE — New Mexico turned deep blue over the last decade as Democrats dominated races for U.S. Senate and the state's presidential electors.

But Republican Mark Ronchetti will have one bit of history on his side as he challenges Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this fall.

Since 1990, the party in control of the White House has lost every governor's race in New Mexico. Lujan Grisham herself crushed a Republican opponent in 2018 as Donald Trump held the presidency.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque, said the mood of the nation suggests New Mexico is in for a much more competitive gubernatorial election this year.

"It just makes it more challenging for the Democratic incumbent during the campaign," Sanderoff said. "The Democrats — in no way, shape or form — can take this race for granted."

A handful of national rating sites, including the Cook Political Report and Politico Forecast, characterize the New Mexico governor's race as leaning Democratic, a category that indicates a competitive race, but with one party having an edge.

Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said he would describe Lujan Grisham as the favorite at this point. Both candidates will be well-funded, he said, but Lujan Grisham is starting with a $3.1 million war chest.

Still, President Joe Biden "is a bit of an anchor for her," Sanchez said.

Ronchetti will certainly have some history on his side. Starting with Democrat Bruce King's victory in 1990, New Mexico's governor race has moved opposite to the party in the White House every four years, a streak of eight elections.

Before Lujan Grisham, for example, Republican Susana Martinez won election in the midterms of President Barack Obama, and Democrat Bill Richardson rung up victories under President George W. Bush.

Tuesday blowout

Ronchetti won the GOP nomination in a landslide Tuesday, outpacing his nearest opponent by 43 percentage points.

He claimed 58% of the vote in a five-way race.

The top race on the Democratic side was for attorney general. Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez won the nomination.

About 25% of eligible voters — 261,912 people — cast ballots in Tuesday's primary election. It was lighter turnout than in 2018, when 28% of voters participated.

Ronchetti's matchup with Lujan Grisham immediately drew national help from a group associated with the Republican Governors Association.

The national group, Get Families Back to Work, launched a television ad blasting Lujan Grisham for giving pay raises to high-ranking staff members amid the pandemic.

The Democratic Party of New Mexico issued its own attacks, linking Ronchetti to other Republicans on the statewide ticket. They described the GOP slate as "dangerous" and "extremists."

During his election night speech, Ronchetti warned his supporters to prepare for an onslaught of attack ads.

"We are going into this race with eyes wide open," he said.

He also continued to rail against political insiders and elites, saying he would change New Mexico's trajectory if elected.

"I'm a political outsider, and if you think I'm apologizing for it, you're going to be waiting a long time," Ronchetti said.

Lujan Grisham, by contrast, was unopposed in the Democratic primary and began the general election campaign by touting her record in public office, including legislative victories as governor on renewable energy standards, gun control measures and marijuana legalization.

"This election," she said in a statement, "we face a choice between continuing that path forward or taking us back, between a leader who has committed their life to the state of New Mexico and someone who has admitted they don't know the challenges New Mexicans face, between someone with a track record of building consensus and delivering results and someone who has never run a business or served our state."

Competitive

With a Democrat in the White House, history suggests some headwinds facing Lujan Grisham.

The contest could be closer, at least, than the 2018 race, when Lujan Grisham, then a congresswoman, defeated Republican Steve Pearce, also a member of Congress, by 14 percentage points.

"Ronchetti is going to make it competitive," Sanchez, the UNM professor, said.

The last time the president's party won New Mexico's governor's race was in 1986. Republican Garrey Carruthers won 53% of the vote that year over Democrat Ray Powell as President Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his second term.

But history isn't fate, of course. The quality of the candidates, their campaigns and their records will be factors in the governor's race, experts say.

"This trend will not continue forever," Sanderoff said. "It may very well get broken in this upcoming gubernatorial election. But this phenomenon influences outcomes in close races."

Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.