I’m a college student in my twenties. I wear glasses and flannel shirts and boots and I can’t grow a beard. Jobs are hard to come by and I think one of the tires on my car needs to be replaced, but how would I really know? In other words, I should be the target audience for a Bernie Sanders message, but I’m not. I’m a Republican because a Republican knocked on my door three years ago and registered me to vote. And for the past three years, I’ve been attending Doña Ana county GOP meetings and working on campaigns to elect Republican candidates, and I haven’t had much success at that. Here’s why.
On Nov. 9th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States despite virtually 100% prediction otherwise, stunning the country and upending the political system for the foreseeable future. Trump created a wave that made traditionally Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin flip to R. Trump’s wave lifted a GOP majority in the U.S. Senate and House, along with Republican Governors and state legislatures across the country.
But none of that wave so much as trickled over to New Mexico: despite zero evident interest from Hillary Clinton or her running mate, Tim Kaine, the Democratic ticket went loyally and early into Clinton’s corner. Maggie Toulouse Oliver handily won election as Secretary of State, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan was comfortably re-elected, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham enjoyed her largest re-election margins ever. (Grisham’s commercials, featuring sepia-hued images and uplifting stories of her accomplishments, went unchecked on the airwaves and allowed her to frame herself two years early for a latent gubernatorial campaign that everyone saw coming.)
Perhaps most discouraging of all is the loss of the New Mexico state House. Republicans pulled off an incredible upset in 2014, with Gov. Susana Martinez re-elected and ushering in a GOP majority in the lower chamber for the first time in decades. It was the first sign that the land of enchantment held a slight conservative streak. Only two years later, all those gains were gone.
Well, except for one. State Rep. Rick Little was the only GOP candidate on the Doña Ana ballot to win. Reps. Andy Nunez, Terry McMillan, and John Zimmerman lost their re-elections to the House, thereby delivering three of the three seats needed for Democrats to regain control of the lower chamber. Despite the admirable efforts of Republican candidates across the state, the results were decided early in Doña Ana.
The path to statewide power leads through Doña Ana county, something the Democrats realized a long time ago. Statewide Republicans need to realize this, or we will all continue to lose elections.
It’s important to understand how we got here. In 2000, New Mexico was a swing state hotly contested by both George W. Bush and Al Gore. In an alternate universe, Bush winning the land of enchantment, and our five electoral votes, would have voided the Florida recount. Alas, Gore won by a razor-sharp 366 votes. Republicans learned their lesson in 2004, and set their sights on making us a GOP swing state. An aggressive field program pared with Bush’s popularity among Hispanic voters ultimately flipped the state in his successful re-election. Interestingly, Kerry only won Doña Ana county by 600 votes. Slim margins like that allow Republican success further down the ballot.
It’s been downhill from there. John McCain lost Doña Ana county by 11,000 votes. Mitt Romney did slightly better, though still lost the county by 10,000 votes. The important thing to remember is this: in only eight years, the difference between victory and defeat countywide increased tenfold.
In 2016, Donald Trump lost Doña Ana county by 12,000 votes. That margin essentially doomed the Republicans sharing a ballot with him; as every R (except Rep. Little, and even his race was close) fell like dominoes. Swing voters lumped Trump and the GOP together and we lost by essentially party-line margins.
Now it’s time for my unsolicited advice: a path forward means a bigger party. Imagine, if you will, a giant pizza that represents Doña Ana county. About half is Democrat, a quarter is Other, and only about 30% is labeled Republican. There are only two options: eat the measly 30% of that pizza, or bake a bigger pizza. As we see from the results, the losses are only getting larger, thus shrinking our slice of that pizza. But if Republicans grow their numbers in Doña Ana, our slice grows along with it.
First, look at those swing voters. Doña Ana county has roughly the same number of “Other” – undeclared, third party, or declined to state – voters as Republicans voters. Meanwhile, Democrats enjoy the luxury of starting off every election with 45% of the vote in their corner. The trick here is to realize there is a reason why those voters are members of “Other”, and not a major party. Find the issues that resonate with the “Others” and see if they are shared.
Gary Johnson, the former Governor, earned 74,000 votes or roughly ten percent of New Mexico votes, or the equivalent of 10,000 major party votes and every single “Other” vote added together. That’s a lot of people! Ten percent can decide elections, so questions need to be asked – who voted for Johnson? Chances are they are more conservative than not. More importantly, they were turned off enough equally by Clinton and Trump, meaning they could be a swing vote for future elections in the down ballot. Republicans need to find that Johnson voter and connect with them, instead of letting them roam in the wilderness.
Second, register more Republicans. If you’re a Republican, take time to go make friends with a Democrat. Get a cup of coffee with an independent. Get lunch with a libertarian. They’re nice folks. See what they’re all about. See what makes them vote, and who they vote for. Decipher those messages and report that back to your county party officers. Develop a plan, even if you have to do it voter-by-voter.
Remember when I told you I was a Republican because a Republican knocked on my door? That’s what it takes. People remember who takes the time to knock on your door. So, go make that crucial first contact. That new neighbor moving in down the street? Go welcome them to the neighborhood and register them to vote. Tell your friend that you’ll buy them lunch if they sit through a GOP County Party meeting. Chances are, they’re not involved because no one has ever asked them to be involved. Be even bolder and show up to something that other Republicans may not attend. Go to the NAACP meetings, go to the farmer’s co-ops. If we want to change minds, we have to meet people first.
To clarify, I’m a Republican and I am glad we have a Republican President with Republican majorities in the congress and a Republican Governor and a Republican Congressman. But on the local level, voters of all stripes were slamming their messages over our GOP heads like a sledgehammer and the bandages still haven’t been applied.
So, what do those messages mean? Maybe it means we moderate our message. Maybe it means we go further to the right. Maybe it means we welcome libertarians, or drop or add an issue or two from our platforms. Perhaps it means Republicans should only nominate candidates wearing clown shoes. The only way we’ll find out is if we make the effort. What we don’t do is stand in place protecting a status quo. Stagnancy will lead Republicans nowhere but defeat. How many more electoral losses will it take for New Mexico Republican Politicos to understand this?