Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Mark Ronchetti. (Images courtesy of the candidates)
SANTA FE – With less than one month to go until Election Day, Republican Mark Ronchetti has launched a new TV ad attacking incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for paying $150,000 out of her reelection account to settle claims levied by her former campaign spokesman.
The settlement payments – paid out over the course of one year – had been previously disclosed by the Lujan Grisham campaign, but had not been used as political ammunition in this year’s race for governor until now.
The 30-second ad features media reports about both the settlement payments and the allegations made by James Hallinan that Lujan Grisham sexually mistreated him during a 2018 meeting.
“Wouldn’t this get you fired?” the ad’s narrator asks.
The Democratic governor has strenuously denied Hallinan’s allegations, but said she agreed to the settlement in order to avoid a drawn-out legal fight and to focus on handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has also disputed comparisons to sexual harassment allegations levied at former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I was focused on the pandemic, and I’ll stand by that decision every minute of every day,” Lujan Grisham said during a June 2021 news conference, describing the decision to settle.
University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Ronchetti’s decision to launch the attack ad now could be due to the fact the GOP nominee has been trailing in recent polls.
“Typically the candidate who strikes first with personal attacks is running behind in the race, so the Hallinan story coming out now suggests that Ronchetti’s team knows they need to make up some ground,” Sanchez told the Journal.
He also said the ad is likely targeted specifically at undecided voters, not voters who more closely follow policy issues and may have already decided who they plan to support in the Nov. 8 general election.
However, whether the ad ends up being a “game-changer” by successfully winning over some of those voters remains to be seen, Sanchez said. He also said it’s possible the attack ad could prompt the Lujan Grisham campaign to hit back at Ronchetti with a critical ad of its own.
Lujan Grisham campaign spokeswoman Delaney Corcoran said Monday the accusations included in the Ronchetti ad are “completely false.”
“Mark Ronchetti is running this false advertisement as a desperate attempt to salvage his failing campaign as New Mexicans continue to reject his extremist plan to ban abortion in the state,” Corcoran said.
She also described the claims as an “employment dispute” and said the settlement between the Lujan Grisham campaign and Hallinan was entered into in order to avoid spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on legal fees during the apex of the pandemic.
Hallinan accused Lujan Grisham in late 2019 – about a year after he left the campaign – of pouring a bottle of water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch through his clothes as she laughed, an incident he said took place in front of other campaign staffers during a meeting in 2018.
A former Attorney General’s Office spokesman who now runs his own communications and public relations company, Hallinan told the Journal at the time he was talked out of reporting the incident by Lujan Grisham campaign manager Dominic Gabello, who went on to work in the Governor’s Office before stepping down to work as a political consultant.
Hallinan declined to comment on the Ronchetti ad.
Meanwhile, the Ronchetti campaign also accused Lujan Grisham of hypocrisy over her signing a 2020 bill barring employers from requiring employees to sign off on nondisclosure agreements about settlements stemming from workplace sexual harassment, retaliation or discrimination.
The new ad, which began airing Saturday on network and cable stations, is the latest twist in an increasingly combative contest between Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti.
Outside groups have also spent hefty sums of money on the race, with Democratic-leaning groups blasting Ronchetti on his stances on abortion and climate change and a Republican-leaning group targeting the governor over her spending on alcohol, food and other expenses from a taxpayer-funded account.