Running at Power

Unpacking the race to be the next New Mexico governor

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

New Mexico might scrape the bottom of many, many lists, but voters here can hang their hats on one thing: They have a pragmatic streak.

Maybe the best example in recent memory is the lengthy tenure of the state's two former US senators, Democrat Jeff Bingaman and Republican Pete Domenici. The Democrat served five terms. The Republican, six. Both rose to seniority on the Senate Energy Committee, playing lifeguard to New Mexico's national labs and paying close attention to the river of federal cash floating the boat of the state's economy.

But since then-Republican Gary Johnson (yes, that Gary Johnson) beat Democrat Bruce King in the race for governor a quarter century ago, New Mexico voters have bestowed two consecutive terms to politicians from opposite parties. First Johnson, then Democrat Bill Richardson, then Republican Susana Martinez each maximized their term-limited time in office.

For better or for worse, voters seem betrothed to their pick for governor every eight years.

That history and that pragmatism would seem to bode well for Michelle Lujan Grisham. In the last Albuquerque Journal poll—conducted by Brian Sanderoff, who rarely misses calling the victor—the Democratic Albuquerque congresswoman led Republican Steve Pearce, 50-43 percent.

But no one who talked with SFR about the race for governor seemed to think Lujan Grisham has sealed the deal. Pearce has been campaigning hard. He told SFR earlier this year that he'd spent maybe four nights in his house since June of 2017. And that's a guy who didn't have a primary opponent. Plus, he has a boatload of cash from his congressional account (more on that saga on page 14).

The run for power is on, dear voter, and if history's any guide, your vote this November may just count double over the next eight years.

Michelle Lujan Grisham declared she was running for governor 36 days after getting re-elected to Congress in 2016. Her campaign borrowed a bit of strategy from Hillary Clinton, who 21 months earlier opened her presidential campaign in a YouTube video.

Lujan Grisham, who has represented New Mexico's 1st Congressional District since 2013, sat in a living room, blurry background, soft music playing. She addressed the camera directly. Her campaign called the video "New Beginning."

At the time, Democrats were reeling. Some were near panic. Donald Trump was halfway through his transition to power and everyone was wondering what his administration would look like—and what it would do.

Seven months later, in his own launch video on Facebook, Steve Pearce began his campaign.

The congressman from the 2nd Congressional District, Pearce also sat in a softly lit room for the video. He spoke in hushed tones about his upbringing as one of six children in a ramshackle home. There were pictures of the house, which seemed to exist in its post-Pearce-rearing days solely for the purpose of defining "ramshackle." He spoke to an off-camera interviewer, explaining his vision for the state. His campaign called it "Pearce for New Mexico." That same day, Pearce made the interview rounds at Albuquerque TV stations.

The presence of Pearce, New Mexico's most prominent Republican office holder and winner of seven congressional elections, warded off any Republican primary competitors. Mindful of New Mexico's voting trends for governor, three other Democrats ran against Lujan Grisham. She beat them all back handily.

Both candidates have walked the line between Congress and campaign in the months since, dealing with the same issues, casting votes on many of the same measures (see page 15). They might have even shared a flight or two on the way back home from Washington, DC.

As the Trump era has played out, the national climate has tilted toward Lujan Grisham and other Democrats. In New Mexico, Trump's approval rating has dropped to 38 percent, according to the Journal poll in early September. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez' approval is even lower, at 35 percent.

"It should be a good year for the Democratic nominee. I don't think she's put the race away though," Tim Krebs tells SFR in a phone call during his lunch break. The head of the University of New Mexico's political science department, Krebs is the sort who happily sets aside a sandwich to talk campaigning.

Because polling has stayed relatively close, he expects those numbers to tighten up before Election Day, especially as outside spending groups try to soften each of the candidates with spending on negative broadcast ads.

RealClearPolitics, a website that tracks political polling, rates the race as leaning Democratic. It lists just three polls and gives Lujan Grisham a 7.4 percentage point lead as an "average" of all polling data. But those numbers show 12 percent of voters as undecided. No one is undecided when they cast a ballot.

"The president's popularity in particular is important in gubernatorial elections," Krebs says. "People will have a sense of which party they want to support based on presidential approval. Folks in the middle are potentially persuaded by the popularity or unpopularity of the president, and act accordingly in these statewide races."

Krebs says many voters who belong to a party aren't necessarily beholden to it at the ballot box. That might smell odd to the party-loyal nose, but there's an air of pragmatism to it.

"I think that from the very beginning, this has been a race that's Michelle Lujan Grisham's to lose," says Jose Zebedo Garcia. The former secretary of higher education for Susana Martinez, Garcia is also a retired professor at New Mexico State University. He runs a politics blog that he updates semi-regularly with his thoughts.

He doesn't just share the political bug with Krebs; he's also of the opinion that Lujan Grisham has yet to salt away a victory.

Pearce makes much of his appeal to Democrats. As proof, he frequently cites the political makeup of his district which, according to the Office of the Secretary of State, stands at 40 percent Democrat and 36 percent Republican.

The Cook Political Report, a well-respected website that measures political performance in elections, rates New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District as leaning Republican—182nd out of the 235 seats held by the party in the House of Representatives. Cook, by the way, also rates New Mexico's race for governor as leaning Democratic. (It scores the race to replace Pearce as a toss-up.)

"Pearce has made a concerted effort in the past few years to reach out to people in the southern part of [Doña Ana] County—and most people in the southern part are Democrats—and make himself available to them. That's one of the things that I keep hearing," Garcia tells SFR. "But that's a far cry from saying that he is popular among the entire electorate."

"I don't think his success in his House district is a good barometer," says Krebs, noting that, despite a slim Democratic majority, President Trump easily won the 2nd Congressional District. The district has made Pearce feel at home with some very right-leaning views. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, Pearce has voted with Trump nearly 90 percent of the time. The congressman is a member of the Freedom Caucus, which contains just a few dozen of the most conservative House Republican members.

Though he credits Pearce with good work on the image-making front, Krebs hasn't seen much of a shift in policy since Pearce's last statewide run in 2008, when Tom Udall beat him with ease for a seat in the US Senate.

"He's basically the same person," Krebs says. "He's trying to moderate his position on the education front, which is a huge deal in this state with a huge constituency. But he's not a particularly good fit for the state" when it comes to political views.

There are two televised debates left in the campaign. While a gaffe or a withering put-down can move the polling needle, Garcia sees that as unlikely from two professional politicians. During the first debate last month on Fox New Mexico, he says, "They both sounded like a congressperson who had been in Washington too long. They were talking much too fast, like they were trying to get 15 talking points into 10 seconds. It didn't come across as particularly sincere."

Pearce and Lujan Grisham might quibble with the sincerity observation, but both would likely agree that they've been in Washington too long. Pearce served in the state Legislature for two terms in the late 1990s, but has either been in DC or running for a job there since 2003. Before serving in DC beginning in 2013, Lujan Grisham held a series of state agency jobs, including Director of Aging and Long-Term Services and Secretary of Health, as well as a seat on the Bernalillo County Commission.

Key Issues


MLG: Would lobby for increased teacher and staff pay, shift money from administration and streamline data reporting. Favors universal pre-kindergarten and lowering qualifying school age from 5 to 3 years old. Would likely do away with Martinez' teacher evaluation and school grading systems.

SP: Says teachers are asked to do too much and would suspend and reassess the Martinez teacher evaluation system. Would try to decentralize decision-making for educational policy. Wants to restructure discretionary funding for school districts to make it more broadly available.

Signature Economic Ideas

MLG: Would eliminate the cap on New Mexico's film and TV production tax credit. Wants the State Investment Council to invest more money in New Mexico businesses and would broaden the rules for investment. Seeks to create a small business/entrepreneur advocate's position in the governor's office.

SP: Pearce favors increasing the state's high-tech footprint through programs to retain younger workers in growth fields. He would invest more public money in Spaceport America. He's been consistently in favor of hiring private companies to thin trees in the national forests. He also supports apprenticeship programs for trades. He wants to build an oil refinery in New Mexico.

Permanent Funds

MLG: Favors increasing the annual payments from the funds, specifically to invest in early childhood education programs like pre-kindergarten. "You can't be serious about a quality education, about improving the economy and diminishing poverty, if you're not investing in early childhood education."

SP: Would not support increasing distributions from the permanent fund(s). "I think that we should be fiscally responsible and people should understand that that fund is for when we are out of oil and gas completely. … Let's fix our education system as it stands."


MLG: An "all of the above" approach that accepts the role of oil and natural gas, but incentivizes renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Favors requiring power companies to generate more renewable energy. Would try to force oil and gas producers to capture methane from rigs and wells instead of allowing leaks.

SP: Pearce is an oil and gas guy, and there's little indication he would shift away from it to a large degree. His website's energy policy section is one paragraph long and says he supports all forms of energy generation. Believes "the human is the first and most important part of the environment."


MLG: Calls for an immediate raise of the minimum wage to $10 statewide, then to $12 in four years, with future indexing of the minimum wage to inflation. "You have to protect [low-income] benefits and support those individuals by making sure they have a meaningful wage that can keep those benefits until they're stable enough to move off of them."

SP: Does not support increasing the minimum wage. Would incentivize businesses to move into high-poverty areas "where the people have shown the capacity to be trained to become good employees." He says, "If you want to help people, you need to grow the economy. … You can't pay more just because you want to. Your bottom line has to support it."

Public Safety

MLG: Wants to increase collaboration and intelligence sharing among law enforcement agencies. Favors a statewide ban on semi-automatic assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines and banning gun ownership for people with domestic violence convictions.

SP: Has said that he wants to hold more convicted criminals in prison. Has not offered many specifics, focusing instead on recidivism programs for housing and employment for recently released former inmates. Also favors shifting mental and behavioral health funding from prisons to treatment programs.

See where the candidates stand on cannabis.

MONEY: A look at the campaign war chests

It takes a lot of money to run for governor. Michelle Lujan Grisham has raised $7.8 million and Steve Pearce $4.3 million, as of Oct. 1. That's a big difference, but it plays smaller.

Lujan Grisham has spent a lot, and has $782,000 on hand. Pearce hasn't had to shell out as much, and still has $1.25 million squirreled away. This is a contest to see who can finish with the most votes, not the most money, but that cash on hand gives Pearce money for a final publicity push.

As has been well-publicized, Steve Pearce won a lawsuit against the secretary of state, enabling him to transfer more than $917,000 from his congressional campaign account to his campaign for New Mexico governor. That and the lack of a primary opponent have given Pearce a sizeable financial boost in the race.

Michelle Lujan Grisham didn't challenge the state's ruling on campaign finance, assuming she could only put a few thousand dollars of congressional campaign cash into her run for governor. So why didn't she dump it all when Pearce won his challenge? She barely had any. Lujan Grisham declared just five weeks after winning re-election to Congress, which means she hardly raised a thing in that time. She cut several checks to the US Treasury and also refunded a few thousand to a consulting group.

She spent $2 million running for Congress in 2016, so it would stand to reason she could have raised more had she waited to declare and then waited once more to see how Pearce's case came out.

In contrast, Pearce spent less than $1 million on his 2016 run, despite having raised closer to $2 million. He hardly raised a dime between re-election and his declaration for governor, though, so it was his frugality in 2016 that gave him the drop.


Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act 

S 2155 rolled back many regulatory reforms of the Dodd-Frank Act, leaving
fewer than 10 banks subject to financial "stress tests."

  • MLG: No
  • SP: Did not vote

American Health Care Act

HR 1628 would have replaced Obamacare with a Republican-authored health care system.

  • MLG: No
  • SP: Yes

2016 Budget Bill

Republicans passed HCR 27 to cut spending, but it hinged on a controversial provision that boosted military funding while slashing Medicaid and food stamps.

  • MLG: No
  • SP: Yes

No Sanctuary for Criminals Act

HR 3003 would have withheld federal funding from sanctuary cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

  • MLG: No
  • SP: Yes

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

HR 1 was the Republican tax reform package that cut corporate income tax and changed personal income tax rates.

  • MLG: No
  • SP: Yes

Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2017

HR 601 had two key votes. Both would have provided billions in disaster relief; one included an amendment that would have increased the debt ceiling.

  • MLG: Yes and yes on amendments
  • SPP: Yes and no on amendments
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