Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A contentious campaign season will tumble to an end Tuesday – and another will begin – as New Mexico voters cement the nominees for governor and a host of open races.

The outcome of Tuesday’s primary election could also reshape the state House, where moderates and progressives are competing for control of a series of Democratic-leaning seats.

For Republican voters, the top of the ballot features an increasingly bitter contest among the five candidates vying to take on Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this fall.

On the Democratic side, the wide open race for attorney general has generated its own series of negative attacks, with State Auditor Brian Colón and Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez exchanging jabs over who is best qualified.

Whatever the race, New Mexico voters aren’t flocking to the polls yet.

“It’s lighter than expected, ” Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said in an interview. “I think it’s going to be a slow turnout. I don’t think there will be lines anywhere in Lea County.”

About 9% of registered voters in the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties had already cast their ballots – either absentee or at early voting sites – according to figures released Friday. The percentage will climb, of course, when election officials release the final tally from early voting and incorporate turnout on election day itself. Absentee ballots are due by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said it’s reasonable to expect moderate to low turnout given that Democrats – the largest group of voters in the state – don’t have a contested governor’s race or open congressional seat to weigh in on.

Participation in New Mexico’s primary election hit 42% in 2020, but turnout was just 28% in 2018 and 34% in 2016, according to an analysis of state records by Research & Polling Inc.

Turnout has averaged about 35% over the last three primary election cycles.

“We may not even achieve that,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based polling firm.

GOP focus on border

The race for the Republican nomination for governor has offered a preview of themes expected in the general election campaign.

The best-funded GOP candidates – former KRQE meteorologist Mark Ronchetti and state Rep. Rebecca Dow – each focused on border security and immigration in early television ads.

Ronchetti, who had a healthy lead in the Journal Poll conducted last month, slammed Lujan Grisham in a recent commercial for pulling the National Guard from the border after she took office.

Sanchez, executive director of the UNM Center for Social Policy, said the focus on immigration matches a political strategy used across the country to energize Republican voters.

Immigration, however, hasn’t necessarily been a big issue for voters in New Mexico, he said, especially in 2020 when the pandemic dominated election season.

The question for the Republican nominee, Sanchez said, is whether the border message will resonate with an electorate “much more liberal on immigration than who they’re talking to” in the primary.

Dow and Ronchetti have slammed each other in harsh television ads. Dow questioned Ronchetti’s loyalty to Republican principles and ex-President Donald Trump, and Ronchetti has hit Dow on her legislative record, among other negative barbs back and forth.

Whether the attacks will have any carry-over effects that linger into the general election campaign remains to be seen.

Sanderoff, the Albuquerque pollster, said the ads may provide a template for Lujan Grisham or her supporters as they search for an effective message targeting the Republican nominee.

“The ads reduce the favorability of both candidates,” Sanderoff said. But “the average voter wasn’t born yesterday, and they recognize that some of these ads do stretch the truth and exaggerate.”

Sanchez said voters have come to expect harsh attacks on prominent candidates.

“I don’t think it has the same shock factor we might have seen 10 years ago,” he said.

Ronchetti and Dow have raised the most money in the Republican field and had the most visible TV presence throughout the campaign.

But Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, demonstrated strength at the Republican convention earlier this year, leading the five-person field in support from delegates. It means his name appears first on the ballot.

Greg Zanetti, an Albuquerque financial adviser and retired general in the Army National Guard, has also been well-funded as he seeks the nomination.

Rounding out the field is former Cuba Mayor Ethel Maharg, an anti-abortion activist.

The winner will face Lujan Grisham, who is seeking her second term, and Libertarian Karen Bedonie.

Open races

Democrats are choosing nominees in three contested races for statewide office, none of which features an incumbent up for reelection.

The race to succeed Attorney General Hector Balderas pits two of the state’s most prominent Democrats – Colón, the auditor, and Torrez, the prosecutor – against each other.

Neither has held back in their bid for the office.

Torrez has blasted Colón as a career politician with no experience in public safety. Colón characterizes Torrez as a failed prosecutor with an abysmal success rate.

The winner will advance to face Republican Jeremy Gay, a Gallup lawyer and former judge advocate in the Marine Corps.

Balderas, a Democrat, cannot run this year because of term limits.

The Democratic race for treasurer is also contentious, triggering three ethics complaints and a series of attack ads.

Competing for the nomination are former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya and Heather Benavidez, chief of staff to incumbent state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg.

The winner will face Republican Harry Montoya in the fall.

In the state auditor’s race, Democratic candidates Joseph Maestas, a member of the Public Regulation Commission, and Zack Quintero, a former state ombudsman, are campaigning for the nomination.

No Republican filed in the race.

Down-ballot races

Voters are also choosing nominees for the state House of Representatives, where all 70 seats are on the ballot, and for county and other offices.

The legislative races come as moderate and progressive Democrats compete for an edge in the party.

Progressive Democrats enjoyed a series of primary wins in the state Senate two years ago, pushing the chamber to the left as lawmakers took up – and eventually passed – legislation on abortion rights and marijuana legalization.

But this year’s races have the potential to reverse or halt the trend.

Democrats have 13 contested primary races in the House, six of which don’t have an elected incumbent seeking reelection.

In some cases, progressive incumbents face challenges from moderate, business-friendly candidates.

The contests are playing out as the House prepares to choose new leadership next year. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is stepping down at the end of the year.

“There are a lot of contested House seats in the Democratic primary,” Sanderoff said. “If any trending should occur, it could influence the outcome of the speaker’s race.”

Two potential candidates to succeed him – House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, a progressive from Albuquerque, and House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chair Patricia Lundstrom, a moderate from Gallup – have doled out contributions to favored candidates.