In the end, the exhausted mantra of "change" swayed the nation—and New Mexico. In the beginning of the 2008 election cycle, however, even Santa Fe psychics believed Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.
But one thing that was obvious from the start: Politics was about to become a national obsession.
Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc. said numerous factors, from anger at President Bush to strong feelings about the war in Iraq, generated the excitement of the election year. And then there were the candidates.
"In 2000 and 2004, you didn't hear a lot of Democrats say, 'I love Al Gore; I love John Kerry.' You heard them say, 'I don't like George Bush,' and they voted for Gore and Kerry and they were close elections. This time…I heard very few Republicans say, 'I love John McCain'…but there was this level of enthusiasm for Obama; they were truly inspired by him. I saw young people with tears in their eyes at the mention of his name. It was quite shocking."
New Mexico's own political fortunes also were up for grabs. Republican US Sen. Pete Domenici's announced retirement created a perfect political storm and opened up four of the state's five congressional seats.
Rarely a month passed in '08 that wasn't marked by a major political story. For New Mexico, it went a little something like this:
The year began with Gov. Bill Richardson throwing in the towel on his presidential race. The governor announced his return to NM at a crowded press conference in the Rotunda, noting that his stance against the war in Iraq had influenced the other candidates. Also noteworthy this month: Barack Obama spoke to a packed and frenzied room at Santa Fe Community College.
Along with more than 20 other states, New Mexico held its Super Tuesday Democratic presidential caucus on Feb. 5. It was ultimately won by Clinton with 48.8 percent to Obama’s 47.6 percent. However, voting problems for the one-race/one-party caucus foreshadowed concerns about New Mexico’s election. The same month, it became clear that the Republican primary, between US Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce to succeed Domenici, might very well leave the GOP between a rock and a hard place.
Although many pundits assumed Richardson’s front page Super Bowl Sunday photo op with Bill Clinton was an implicit endorsement of his wife, Richardson came out for her opponent in the third week of March.
Subsequently, Clinton’s former strategist James Carville called Richardson a “Judas.” Richardson defended his decision, telling SFR, “It was painful, but I felt I was making a decision on what was best for the country…I really felt Obama was something special and good and I still do."
Richardson’s gamble paid off: On June 19, a week and a half after Hillary Clinton conceded the race, Carville donated the maximum $2,300 to Obama for America.
The normally uncontroversial US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, came out for Obama during perhaps the darkest week of the candidate’s primary campaign, after Rev. Jeremiah Wright resurfaced in the headlines.
Meanwhile, frustration mounted among the field of Democratic congressional hopefuls to replace US Rep. Tom Udall in District 3 when Ben Ray Luján won AFSCME’s endorsement, although he was the only candidate to accept money from the prison privatization lobby, one of the union’s enemies. Many believed the fix was in for Ben Ray, son of New Mexico’s powerful Speaker of the House Ben Luján Sr.
Luján’s campaign doesn’t believe that’s what put him over the top. “He had been on the ballot twice already before the primary took place,” Luján’s Press Secretary Mark Nicastre says. “People were familiar with him and it was definitely more that the community knew him as someone who had always been in the community versus, ‘This is Ben Ray Luján whose father is the speaker.’”
Obama and McCain began moving toward the general election dance floor, and both staked out their positions on veterans’ issues in New Mexico on Memorial Day.
On the Senate level, US Rep. Heather Wilson gave a teary-eyed performance at a final debate at Sandia Casino that climaxed with the surprise announcement that retiring Sen. Pete Domenici was officially giving her his blessing, despite his promise to sit out the primary. Her opponent, Rep. Steve Pearce, was shocked.
“As she was making those statements, I was just trying to stay focused on what the campaign was about, to be respectful to the senator and yet still indicate that we felt the voters would choose the philosophical basis that we were aligned with,” Pearce tells SFR.
But the biggest headline of the month was generated by the dark horse congressional candidate Benny Shendo in District 3: At a forum in Farmington, Shendo suggested that Luján was a closeted homosexual, sparking a firestorm of criticism against Shendo.
The former rivals have yet to kiss and make up. “We haven’t had a chance to sit down and visit, but that’s something I hope will happen,” Luján tells SFR.
The June primary finalized New Mexico’s lineup for the general election. Unopposed, Tom Udall won the Democratic primary with nearly 100 percent of the vote. Luján easily took the 3rd Congressional District. Jerome Block Jr. surprised everyone by winning the six-way Public Regulation Commission race for District 3, and Rep. Steve Pearce eked out a 2 percent victory over Wilson.
Because New Mexico went for Bush in 2004, CNN had considered New Mexico a reddish purple. However, in July, CNN moved the state from “leans McCain” to the pure toss-up
The political news hole in August was dominated by the Democratic National Convention, strategically scheduled in Denver, deep in the heart of the swingy southwest [Cover story, Aug. 20: “Denver or Bust”].
New Mexico was prominent at the convention, with former Attorney General Patsy Madrid serving as co-chairwoman of the platform committee. New Mexico Democratic Party’s Brian Colón also stole the spotlight during the roll call, before
deferring to New York so Hillary Clinton could make the unifying call for a vote by acclamation.
Richardson, however, was bumped from his evening speaking slot to make room for Bill Clinton’s long-winded address; he was rescheduled for a shorter mid-afternoon speech at Invesco Field as the warm up act for Black-Eyed Pea will.i.am.
September was the month when the really big names hit the neighborhood. First, Michelle Obama held a roundtable for military families at the College of Santa Fe and Barack made a stop in Española.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain and his new pit bull sidekick, Gov. Sarah Palin, made their New Mexico debut in Albuquerque. The highlight of their visit: a viral video in which the duo takes a full two minutes to pick out a jar of salsa.
On the Senate level, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) ranked Pearce among the 20 most corrupt members of Congress. The same month, Wilson was named as one of the chief instigators in the wrongful termination of former US Attorney David Iglesias and was tied with lobbyists linked to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal.
By October, the political season had gone from silly to ludicrous as Palin had Republican arch-conservatives in New Mexico foaming at the mouths over the Bill Ayers association. When McCain asked, “Who is the Real Barack Obama?” at an event in Albuquerque, a supporter yelled out “terrorist” in response for the first time.
By the time Nov. 4 rolled around, the anticipation had grown almost unbearable. Ultimately, just under 70 percent of New Mexicans cast their ballots (in Santa Fe County, 73 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls). No voting records were set, but the night was, of course, historic. For New Mexico, it was particularly so. For the first time in 40 years, New Mexico emerged with an entirely blue delegation. “We made more of a change in the political landscape than we’ve seen in the last three decades in New Mexico, all in one election cycle,” DPNM Chairman Colón says.
No sooner had Obama won, speculation began about whom he would pick for his cabinet.
As ’08 came to a close, it was clear Richardson was on the road to becoming Obama’s commerce secretary. That meant his post here in New Mexico would be taken over by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and her job by any number of rumored politicos, including State Auditor Hector Balderas, as SFR reported following the election.
With the country reeling from economic hard times, and New Mexico’s newly elected officials switching their offices and staffs, the year seemed ready to end on a whimper. Until, that is, Bloomberg reported Dec. 15 the FBI was investigating whether the governor’s staff had steered contracts to CDR Financial Products, Inc., a California company that donated to his political committees. A grand jury has been convened in Albuquerque to hear evidence on the matter. As for the governor’s take on it, hard to say. He cut off reporters at a press conference, and his press staff was rejecting interview requests (we made several) as December waned.
As exciting a year as 2008 was, next year has plenty in store: an inauguration, confirmations and probably a scandal or two. As for us, our political blog, swingstateofmind.com, was retired at the end of the year. A new venture is in the works. Look for it in the new year.