To understand conservatives’ opening, one must look beyond voter-party head counts.
Of Santa Fe County’s 87 electoral precincts, there are only three in which Republicans hold the narrowest possible majority: 51 percent of registered voters. Countywide, they are outnumbered by those who “decline to state” a party affiliation.
But as former Gov. Johnson notes, the rise in registered independents is part of a nationwide trend—a trend that favors Tea Party allies.
“There’s a migration away from the Republicans and a migration away from the Democrats into that independent category. And that independent category is first and foremost about common sense,” Johnson says.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, Inc. in Albuquerque, says New Mexico independents tend to vote with the “political winds.” Those winds are eroding the turf Democrats conquered in 2008.
“The Republicans have some opportunities in 2010, for a number of reasons,” Sanderoff says. “First, there’s a frustration with incumbents and, in New Mexico, most of the incumbents are Democrats. Two, the liberal base is somewhat deflated. Three, the conservative base is more energized—partially because they’re mad at the president.”
Hypothetically, even if every independent in Santa Fe County allied with the Republicans, such a coalition would comprise only 25 percent of voters. That’s too small to take over elected offices. But the minority has already proven itself strong enough to shape policy—particularly when Democrats fail to inspire.
At the Feb. 20 party convention, Santa Fe Republicans applauded themselves for having defeated two recent proposed tax hikes at the polls. One would have raised money for affordable housing projects, another would have aided the cash-strapped Santa Fe County Fire Department.
While many Democrats surely voted against those taxes, what Santa Fe Republicans lack in numbers, they likely make up for in motivation. Assuming most anti-tax votes came from Republicans, they presumably rallied their base at many times the rate of Democratic tax supporters.
Beyond policy, elected Democrats have done themselves no favors.
To wit, here are a few names Tea Partiers frequently bring up:
• Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr: on trial, with his father, for embezzlement, conspiracy and elections-law violations
• Former Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon: sentenced to more than five years in prison for corruption
• Gov. Bill Richardson: under a cloud of alleged pay-to-play scandals in state pension funds during his administration
“A year ago, there was so much hope for the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party had become so marginalized. Now, it’s sort of reversed. Some of the problem was the Democrats’ own fault because we did ignore this anger of the voters,” former state Sen. Grubesic says. “The Tea Party of New Mexico, their voice is amplified because we’re so corrupt.”