Turnout in primary election lower than predicted

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Jun. 9—With a highly competitive and highly publicized gubernatorial primary race, turnout among Republican voters grew 8 percent Tuesday compared with the 2018 primary election.

Meanwhile, turnout among Democrats — who didn't have to make a choice in four of seven races at the top of the ballot, including the big enchilada: governor — fell about 7 percent.

The raw numbers are even more dramatic.

In 2018, when only one candidate was seeking the Republican nomination for governor, nearly 83,000 Republican voters turned out for the primary. On Tuesday, with five candidates vying to be the nominee, the number spiked to about 117,800 voters — a 42 percent increase.

But the number of registered Republican voters has changed since then. There are about 39,000 more registered Republican voters now than four years ago.

Among Democrats, 141,317 voters cast ballots Tuesday, down from 178,715 in 2018. That's the year three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor were on the ticket, including Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Overall turnout in Tuesday's election was 25 percent — significantly lower than what Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver predicted last week.

"I did think we were going to see higher turnout in the last few days of early voting and on election day, but the good news — the silver lining if you want to call it that — is ... we're going to exceed the raw number" of people who voted, she said.

"We were around 262,300 in 2018, and I think we're going to be more than 263,000 or even a few more than that," she said. "I'm considering that a win in terms of turnout."

Because several of the top-ticket Democratic primary races were uncontested, the state Democratic Party didn't expect a huge turnout Tuesday.

Gov. Lujan Grisham, the Democrats' standard-bearer, was unopposed. So was Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, Toulouse Oliver and state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.

Only the races for attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer were contested.

Five candidates were seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Former TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti crushed the competition with 58 percent of the vote, according to the latest vote tallies.

His biggest rival and closest competitor, state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, finished in second place with 15 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. The pair alone spent a combined $3.6 million on TV advertising, mailers and other campaign-related expenses in an effort to sway voters.

While turnout among Democrats was lower Tuesday than four years ago, the party anticipates Democrats will show up en masse in the general election with Lujan Grisham running for a second term against Ronchetti.

"These turnout numbers are only reflective of the unique partisan circumstances of the primary, which will be entirely different in November," Delaney Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the Democrats, said in a statement.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, isn't so sure.

Pearce said in a statement the poor showing Tuesday among Democrats reflects a "drastic lack of enthusiasm and motivation created by the failures" of President Joe Biden and Lujan Grisham.

Toulouse Oliver said two "significant factors" may have affected turnout, including the ongoing wildfires, which have displaced many residents, and uncontested races at the top of the ballot.

"We definitely saw a dip in Democratic enthusiasm and percentage of overall turnout," she said.

Toulouse Oliver said the top-ticket races tend to be the biggest drivers of turnout but added Democrats "certainly" didn't stay home.

"People were also interested in [the Democratic primary for attorney general and other races] where we saw the most actual participation in terms of voting," she said. "But it's the ads, the information, those are the things that drive enthusiasm, especially in a lower information election like a primary."

Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said an uncontested gubernatorial primary would clearly affect turnout among Democrats.

"Ronchetti's team and Republicans hope that the lower turnout for Democrats is an indicator of their overall enthusiasm being lower than Republicans," he said. "And with the national mood trending away from the Biden administration, his approval ratings tanking, et cetera, they're hoping that there's more there to the gap in turnout among Democrats. I think it's a little bit of that, but mostly you just don't have enthusiasm being driven by having the ability to vote on the governor's race like you did with a tough race with Ronchetti and Dow."

Asked whose job it is to drive turnout, Toulouse Oliver called it a collective effort that includes a wide variety of stakeholders, from her office and county clerks to candidates and civic organizations.

"Having participation in democracy is sort of a cornerstone of ensuring healthy civic life," she said. "My belief is it's a team effort."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.