New Mexico’s first congressional district was never a Republican bastion, but it used to be close. Made up primarily of Bernalillo county and the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, the district supported the Republican Presidential candidate until 1988, and was represented by a Republican for forty straight years. That ended with Rep. Heather Wilson’s departure in 2008. With a couple of exceptions, it’s all been downhill from there. Martin Heinrich won the seat in the 2008 Democratic wave, won a close re-election in 2010, and left to successfully win election to the Senate. Michelle Lujan-Grisham won easily in each of her three terms, and 2018 nominee Deb Haaland is already measuring the drapes for her D.C. office. This is a shame to watch for New Mexico Republicans, especially because historical examples outline a probable path to victory in the district. It’s just that for some reason the GOP doesn’t seem interested in taking that path.
Janice Arnold-Jones, the 2012 nominee for CD-1, was soundly defeated in Bernalillo county. Democratic nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham won 151,680 votes to Arnold-Jones’ 101,538. In 2014, Lujan-Grisham won 96,799 votes to Republican Mike Frese’s 66,693, or just shy of 60% to 40%. In 2016, Grisham won by her largest margin yet: 181,088 votes to Republican Richard Priem’s 96,879 votes. The late Priem was ill and did not run a campaign, which allowed Grisham to spend all her money on positive ads, bolstering her image ahead of her long expected Gubernatorial run. Grisham won 65% to 35%, which indicates a clear trend: Republicans, or voters sympathetic to the Republican brand, are increasingly disillusioned by the lack of coherent messaging on behalf of Republicans in CD-1 and are flocking to the Democrats in increasing numbers.
This cycle, NM CD-1 isn’t even on the map. In June, Democrat Haaland defeated a large field in her primary. Countless national news sources have already anointed her (example A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and national and state Republicans don’t seem interested in fighting back. But Haaland is a poor fit for the district. Crime in Albuquerque, a struggling economy, and the reliance on military bases have historically been on the minds of most of those voters, but Haaland’s top priorities are “climate change” and “Medicare for all”, central planks of the far-left Bernie Sanders wing that have little to do with the daily concerns of everyday Albuquerque citizens.
Haaland is a poor fit for the district. Crime in Albuquerque, a struggling economy, and the reliance on military bases have historically been on the minds of most of those voters, but Haaland’s top priorities are “climate change” and “Medicare for all”, central planks of the far-left Bernie Sanders wing that have little to do with the daily concerns of everyday Albuquerque citizens.
Despite these rough facts, a Republican victory in CD-1 isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Bernalillo county went for Susana Martinez in 2010, and again in 2014, when she won 54%. Mayor Richard Berry won a resounding 68% of the vote in his re-election for Mayor of Albuquerque. And Democrats have been taking CD-1 for granted long enough that if a self-sufficient, well organized GOP campaign came along, it could very well defeat a sluggish Democratic CD-1 operation. And the Democrats who have won since Wilson’s departure have shifted steadily to the left, going from Oklahoma’s native son Martin Heinrich to Lujan-Grisham and now Deb Haaland. All three are members of the progressive, Bernie Sanders-wing of the Democratic party, and are overall poor fits for the moderate Democratic base in Albuquerque. Clearly, the right Republican could capitalize on that disconnect, as that same Democratic base is the swing vote that launched Governor Martinez to statewide office and afforded Mayor Berry two terms. But without a GOP candidate of the same caliber, those Democrats will vote for the far-left nominee from their party instead of supporting a Republican that more closely shares their values.
Likewise, the grunt work of campaigning needs to be taken seriously by New Mexico Republicans. Voter registration is an arduous task that has been happily embraced by Democrats, and Democrats solidly outnumber Republicans in CD-1. The GOP is seemingly uninterested in a sustained effort to turn that around, and outside groups won’t do it for them. Additionally, by most accounts field work, or the process of voter contact by knocking on doors and making phone calls in the district, has been neglected by Republicans in this cycle. Nothing persuades a voter, or solidifies their support, like an in-person conversation with a candidate or a campaign.
Republicans also need to realize that New Mexico’s first congressional district has not historically been the final stop on someone’s political career. Wilson is now the Secretary of the Air Force. Heinrich is now a U.S. Senator, and was even considered as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016. Lujan-Grisham has a very good shot at getting elected Governor this year. Members of Congress from New Mexico don’t tend to disappear, they go on to have long careers and become major political players in Washington and around the country. Assuming Haaland wins this year, and a campaign is not mounted to replace her in 2020, CD-1 could permanently be noncompetitive for the GOP, and Haaland’s career will last a very long time.
Republicans have abandoned what was once a part of their statewide base, to great detriment. If the New Mexico GOP wants to be taken seriously again, the first congressional district needs to be the focus of a serious campaign in 2020.