On March 17, approximately 800 delegates from around New Mexico packed the halls of Albuquerque's Crowne Plaza Hotel for the state Republican Party's preprimary convention.
Their sheer numbers—more than twice as many as were present at the 2010 preprimary convention, and a reflection of that election's rightward swing—foreshadow the party's rising dominance. But the process and outcome of the convention, with its meager (compared with the Democratic convention a week earlier) turnout, contested races and significant upsets, also underscore some of the key challenges state Republicans face in developing an identity within New Mexico.
Every two years, each party holds a preprimary convention, at which delegates—who are mostly party activists on the county level—cast votes for their preferred nominees in an upcoming primary election. The number of Republican delegates at the convention is based on the most recent Republican gubernatorial vote for each county, and the GOP convention's turnout reflects the significant number of New Mexicans who voted for Gov. Susana Martinez in 2010. State Democrats base their delegate total on the Democratic vote for the most recent gubernatorial and presidential elections. This year, the outcome of the 2008 presidential race gave them an extra bump: The March 10 Democratic preprimary convention hosted more than twice as many delegates as the Republican event.
On one hand, the smaller attendance made the Republican convention a quicker, more streamlined affair—an advantage to those seeking party unity. To others, though, it's evidence that Republicans lack political savvy in New Mexico.
"They're all amateurs," William Summers, a Republican delegate for Bernalillo County, says of his party—but he's quick to clarify his assessment.
"They're rank amateurs who are well-motivated," he adds.
Summers says Republicans will still face an uphill battle in New Mexico in 2012 because Democrats are "built into the origin of the state."
"If you're picking for the NCAA championship, you pick someone who's been there before," Summers says.
For most of the past 80 years, Democrats have controlled the state House of Representatives. Many attribute Democrats' success in New Mexico to their role in helping out residents during the Great Depression.
Even former state representative and current candidate for Congress Janice Arnold-Jones agrees that Democrats in the state are better organized than her party.
"They know how to throw matanzas, and people walk out and say, 'Yeah, I'm going to vote for that guy,'" Arnold-Jones tells SFR. "Kudos to them—we're catching on."
Although the conventions' outcomes are nonbinding when it comes to a party's nomination, they are highly influential.
Candidates need at least 20 percent of the delegate votes to get their names on the ballot for the primary election, scheduled for June 5. Those who don't can just as well kiss their campaigns goodbye. Technically, any candidate can still get on the primary ballot with the required number of signatures, but no candidate who has failed to win 20 percent of convention delegates' votes has ever won a primary.
Arnold-Jones has become this year's case in point. Despite raising less than one-quarter of the campaign funds that her former opponent, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis, succeeded in bringing in, Arnold-Jones won big at the convention, raking in 62 percent of delegate support.
After the vote, Lewis, who garnered 33 percent of the delegate vote, told SFR he wasn't worried.
"We're looking forward to June," Lewis said. "We outraised Janice 4 to 1. We're focused on the June primary; we've got a great organization."
But just three days later and despite heavy national party support, on March 20, Lewis withdrew from the race. When asked by a reporter at an Albuquerque press conference what had changed, he spoke repeatedly about the challenge and difficulty of raising money.
"If the Republicans are serious about winning this race, they'd better get serious about giving," Lewis told press conference attendees. Moments later, Arnold-Jones issued a press release thanking Lewis for "the passion that he has brought to this race."
Although Arnold-Jones no longer faces a high-profile opponent in Congressional District 1, the swing district that includes Albuquerque, the Republicans' race to challenge the Democrats for outgoing US Sen. Jeff Bingaman's seat remains contested, with longshot candidate Greg Sowards continuing to compete against former US Rep. Heather Wilson.
"We will be fooling ourselves if we think that the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Committee doesn't have a stack of politics and research that they cannot wait to unleash on an unelectable career politician," Sowards' son Ben said during his introduction.
Several delegates responded with boos and hisses.
Ben Sowards was referring to Wilson's alleged involvement in the firing of former US Attorney David Iglesias, as part of the 2006 US attorneys firing controversy under President George W Bush. Iglesias accused Wilson of pressuring him to speed up an investigation of then-state Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragón before the 2006 elections. In 2007, the US House Ethics Committee decided not to investigate Wilson over the matter—but her name entered the spotlight again in 2009, when testimony by former Bush operative Karl Rove contradicted Wilson's denial of having pushed for Iglesias' firing.
Both Sowards and state Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales have already brought up the issue, which will likely arise again this fall if Wilson wins the nomination, but Wilson brushes it off as old news.
"That's been dismissed a long time ago," she tells SFR. "My actions were entirely appropriate, and Manny Aragón is in prison, where he belongs."
Indeed, corruption scandals that have plagued mostly Democrats in recent years may be the state GOP's biggest hope for victory in 2012. Dianna Duran, for instance, recently became New Mexico's first Republican Secretary of State since 1930, in large part because of the corruption scandals that plagued her two predecessors, Democrats Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Mary Herrera.
Democrats are also losing ground among registered voters. Although registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 17 percent, their numbers have been dropping, while the GOP's have stayed relatively
One Democratic stronghold remains in Congressional District 3, which includes Santa Fe and where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 25 percent. GOP preprimary winner Rick Newton is already off to a rocky start after falsely claiming that US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, was a member of the "Socialist Party of America" (likely a reference to the Democratic Socialists of America).
Still, Kerry Boyd, a Republican delegate for Santa Fe County, says conservatives are ready to tap into more conservative areas in Stanley and Edgewood. But in Santa Fe, Boyd says, "There are too many progressives and too many liberals. It's a government town."
But even the state's long history of Democratic control has its advantages for Republicans, who criticize New Mexico's perpetually low rankings in quality-of-life indicators such as child poverty and educational attainment.
"We're at the bottom of all the goodness and the top of all the badness," Russell Allen, the Doña Ana County Republican Party chairman who's challenging state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Hidalgo, for his seat this year, tells SFR. "There needs to be change."
Summers agrees that the time is right in New Mexico for a change of power, but his analysis is tinged with cynicism.
"Give them 70 years, then they'll have to throw those rascals out," he says. "That's the nature of power. If you don't believe me, ask Gadhafi."