Virus response fueling GOP bid to retake New Mexico seat

By Simon Romero

When Democrats in New Mexico swept elections just two years ago, flipping the Republican-held congressional district that stretches across more than half the state ranked among their biggest wins.

But in a sign of how tenuous the Democrats’ hold is on some of the House seats they picked up in 2018, especially in districts that President Donald Trump carried four years ago, that prize is suddenly in play yet again.

The incumbent, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, is now among the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress in a race that is drawing attention from leaders of both parties, and potentially huge amounts of spending, as Republicans eye an opening to blunt Democratic momentum in this part of the West.

Yvette Herrell, the Republican seeking to oust Torres Small, is stoking anger over a slump in the oil industry and measures taken by Democrats in New Mexico to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Shifting blame from Trump for the pandemic’s economic fallout, Herrell has grown so critical of New Mexico’s virus mitigation policies that it sometimes seems as if she is running as much against the state’s Democratic governor as against Torres Small.

“This is a razor-thin race we’re looking at if the Republicans energize their base, as they already did in the primary,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a pollster with Latino Decisions and executive director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy.

As the Republican convention gets underway, some of the complications of politics in 2020 are playing out in New Mexico.

The cautious pandemic response by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has kept cases from exploding in a poor state that is home to large numbers of people with underlying conditions. New Mexico has had far fewer COVID-19-related deaths on a per capita basis than neighboring Arizona, one of the first states to reopen in May.

Still, open defiance by sheriffs, business owners and many others of Lujan Grisham’s policies, which include a statewide mask mandate, can make parts of the district in southern New Mexico feel almost like a different state from Albuquerque and points northward, where many people are wearing masks.

The strategy of running hard to the right by avowing loyalty to Trump while blasting Democrats for problems associated with the pandemic could be working for Herrell, who lost the 2018 race by fewer than 4,000 votes.

A poll by the Tarrance Group for the Republican National Committee showed the candidates tied with each getting 46%, and 8% of voters undecided. The poll, conducted in July in a survey of 400 voters, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Democrats are still thought to have the upper hand in their battle to maintain control of the House, with various other races around the country leaning in the party’s direction. Still, the contest in New Mexico shows how easily that could change, even for candidates holding a significant cash advantage.

Torres Small has about $3.9 million in cash on hand (partly a result of robust fundraising in 2018), dwarfing Herrell’s $379,000 and raising the possibility that outside groups could enter the fray to bolster the Republican’s campaign.

As the race tightens, it offers a glimpse into whether a Democrat can hold on to a relatively conservative district where Trump won by 10 points in 2016. The district is now the largest by area in the United States to be represented by a Democrat, stretching from suburban areas near Albuquerque to the border with Mexico.

Almost 50% of eligible voters in the district are Hispanic, a larger proportion than New Mexico’s two other congressional districts. Torres Small, a bilingual 35-year-old water rights lawyer whose grandmother emigrated from Mexico, is trying to appeal to those voters with ads in both Spanish and English.

The vast district includes Las Cruces, a Democratic-leaning city that is home to New Mexico State University, but also the counties that produce most of New Mexico’s oil, an area sometimes called “Little Texas,” where voters have been seething over a shift to the left in the state.

Torres Small, whose 2018 ads featured her grasping a hunting rifle, is now casting herself as a moderate Democrat who can reach consensus with Republicans and even defy Democratic leaders when necessary.

In contrast to the bipartisan image cultivated by the incumbent, Herrell, 56, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was born and raised in southern New Mexico, is making it explicitly clear that she sides with Republicans on issues including oil production, abortion and support for Trump.

While voicing criticism of Torres Small for voting for Trump’s impeachment, Herrell said in an interview that she is counting on a surge in Republican turnout to win the race.

“I’m more in touch with what our voter values are,” Herrell said. “This is a very family-oriented district, very blue collar, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life, pro-free market.”

In New Mexico’s June primary, voter turnout climbed to about 40% of eligible voters, the highest level for a primary in the state since the early 1990s.

But in what could be a troubling sign for Democrats, the total number of Republican votes cast in the primary increased by more than 40% from 2016, while Democratic votes rose by about 5%, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office.

Democrats say they are also counting on much higher turnout in the November election in anticipation of greater voting by mail by constituents hesitant to cast ballots in person during the pandemic.

In the meantime, Herrell and other Republicans are eyeing the political divisiveness around New Mexico’s response to the pandemic as an opening to build support for the party in the coveted district.

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