ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Two weeks before the GOP had its first chance to pick up a seat in Congress since Joe Biden became president, the Republican Party of New Mexico hosted a three-day event dubbed “Operation Freedom.” State Sen. Mark Moores, who was running for the open seat, addressed a crowd of a few hundred party leaders, activists and donors in a hotel conference center. Afterwards, he left the hotel and drove nearly 300 miles back to Albuquerque, where he was actually competing for votes.
New Mexico Republicans had opted to hold their marquee event in Amarillo, Texas.
When the votes came in, Moores had lost to Democratic State Rep. Melanie Stansbury by 24 percentage points—even more than the margin by which Joe Biden had won the district. Nationally, it was seen as a referendum on Biden’s first months in office. But in New Mexico, the story is longer and more complex. For some frustrated New Mexico Republicans, the Amarillo episode and Moores’ loss last Tuesday highlight deeper problems with the state party’s leadership and direction over the last few years—including a turn towards Trumpism that has galvanized some of the party’s base but has seemingly turned off swing voters in the state’s traditionally purple electorate.
As recently as 2016, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez had just won re-election, Republicans had won the state House and Republican Richard Berry was in his second term as Albuquerque mayor. In the years since, the Republican party’s position in Bernalillo County—the anchor of the first congressional district, where the special election was held—has gradually eroded, taking the party’s chances statewide with it. Today, Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and a near-supermajority in the state House.
Part of the GOP’s decline can be attributed to urban-rural polarization, a process set in motion before Donald Trump’s ascent. “The fact is that CD-1 in particular has basically turned into an urban district, and like we see nationally, it’s gotten bluer and bluer,” said Lonna Rae Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and a frequent commentator on local politics.
It wasn’t so long ago that centrist Republican Heather Wilson represented the first district for ten years, despite Democratic victories at the presidential level in 2000 and 2004. New Mexico Republicans remain divided on whether or not the first district is winnable for their party in today’s environment, but for many, the yawning margin last week speaks volumes about the GOP’s overall strength in the state.
“The party had every incentive to try to make it reasonably close,” said Rod Adair, a Republican consultant and demographer who represented a southeast New Mexico state senate seat from 1997 to 2013. “The striking thing about the results is that you would expect, in a special election, for the party opposite the White House to get a little bit of a bump,” he added. “It was actually worse.”
Moores, one of only two Republicans left representing Albuquerque voters in either chamber of the state legislature, even lost his own state senate district by 3.5 points, according to the special election’s unofficial results.
“Nobody’s surprised that Melanie won. I think everybody was somewhat shocked at the margin,” said Darren White, a former sheriff of Bernalillo County and the 2008 GOP nominee for the district.
But the problems run deeper than one congressional district. The state party is now caught in a catch-22, beholden to a right-wing, Trumpist base, while struggling to regain the votes of more moderate, suburban voters, like the ones who used to buoy Republicans across the first district.
“I liked Trump’s policies, but his rhetoric is toxic, and it hurt people, and I think that Mark got the backlash from that,” said Lisa Torraco, a Republican former state senator who represented a suburban, northeast Albuquerque district adjacent to Moores’ before losing re-election in 2016. “And the state party hasn’t done anything to try to heal that.”
Moores was not expected to win the special election, but his chances were even slimmer given the current status of the New Mexico Republican Party, which has tied itself to former President Trump. On the campaign trail, Moores struggled to reconcile the contradictions of running in a moderate, Democratic-leaning district while still trying to energize the party’s hard-right base.
First elected to the state senate in 2012, Moores is difficult to categorize within the wider Republican Party. While one conservative group ranks him as the second-most conservative legislator in the state, Moores is also known for working with Democrats on issues like election reform and marijuana legalization. And far from the Covid-downplaying impulses of other members of his party, Moores and his wife are partners in Pathology Consultants of New Mexico, a medical diagnostics company that conducted virus testing as part of the state’s pandemic response.
At a debate in early May, Moores hedged when asked whether he held Trump responsible for the January 6 Capitol riot. “I think everyone deserves, including us, fault for that riot,” said Moores, clarifying that he meant “us as a nation.” Pressed further by the debate moderator, Moores said, “There’s no question the rhetoric has been out of control for many of us, including the President—the past President—including Ms. Stansbury, including a lot of other folks.” He later affirmed that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election.
Atkeson said that emphasizing crime was not necessarily a wrong-headed approach for Moores. “I do think that’s the long-term right message for the Republican Party, but I don’t think he got anything out of it. I don’t think he was able to connect to voters at that level.” Moores did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In the end, according to interviews with local politicians and political observers, the die was likely cast long before last Tuesday, due not to the politics or personality of Moores but rather to that of the state party boss Steve Pearce.
Pearce was elected party chair in December 2018, following a 14-point loss to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in that year’s gubernatorial election. A former seven-term House member long associated with the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus, Pearce hails from the state’s oil-rich southeastern region known as “Little Texas,” far from the political power centers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and is something of an avatar of the party’s Trumpian brand of politics.
Following Trump’s loss in November, the state party under Pearce fully embraced the narrative of a stolen election—seeking to impound ballots in Bernalillo County; working with the Trump campaign on a lawsuit against the New Mexico secretary of state that sought to invalidate the results of the election; promoting a meeting of unofficial, Republican-appointed electors at the state capitol on December 14; and supporting the Texas election lawsuit before the Supreme Court. A day after the Capitol insurrection, the party issued a statement declaring “our democracy has been tarnished,” referring not to the sacking of the U.S. Capitol but to the certification of Biden’s electoral college victory.
“God bless President Donald J. Trump. He will be our President FOREVER and no one can take that away from us,” wrote Pearce in a since-deleted tweet a few days later on January 9.
Some Republicans worry that Pearce and his party organization have grown out of touch with the realities of the state’s electorate.
“Look, this is a guy who guaranteed Donald Trump was gonna win New Mexico,” said Dan Foley, a former state lawmaker and regular GOP pundit in the state.
“I think a lot of us—that aren’t saying the election was rigged and that Covid is like the flu, and all the other things that Trump stirred up—are so tired of the Trump message,” said Mark Veteto, president of Me-Tex Oil and Gas and a major state GOP donor from the state’s oil patch.
“They have gotten too close to Lauren Boebert and too far from Liz Cheney,” said Merritt Allen, a New Mexico public relations executive and 2018 GOP state House candidate, on Friday’s episode of New Mexico in Focus on NMPBS.
Last August, Pearce publicly called for the resignation of Ryan Flynn, the executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and a former Republican state Cabinet secretary, after Flynn made positive remarks about then-representative Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat. Some Republicans saw the episode as a needless provocation by Pearce.
“The party’s being ripped down the middle, and I think I’m gonna blame Trump for that,” said Veteto, but he also said that Trump acolyte Pearce bore responsibility for the New Mexico GOP’s recent decline in power. “He’s the chairman of our party and hasn’t won any elections, except for Yvette Herrell.” (Last year, Herrell won Pearce’s old House seat, taking back for the Republican Party a traditionally conservative district that Democrats have only represented for four of the last 40 years, including after a narrow upset in 2018.)
In an email statement sent out Thursday morning, the state party blamed the loss in the special election on depressed voter turnout due to lingering anger over the 2020 election, anger that the state party arguably helped foment. “Republican voters were angry from 2020—many questioned election integrity—and stayed home,” the statement read. Speaking with POLITICO, Pearce reiterated that sentiment, saying he encountered more anger than he anticipated while knocking doors. Asked if he thought the party bore any responsibility for the loss, Pearce demurred, noting that the party helped with canvassing and fundraising while letting Moores’ campaign operate out of its headquarters rent-free. “I think we were very active on behalf of Moores,” he said.
Pearce also noted the lack of national Republican investment in the race: The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s primary campaign arm, sent just $5,000 to the Moores campaign, even after the state senator loaned $200,000 of his own money to his campaign in a bid to make the race competitive and spur national investment. “Maybe there was a shortage of money, I don’t know exactly what it was,” said Pearce. “That’s not my job to get them here.”
Today, finding Republicans in the state to run for office is proving difficult. Albuquerque’s mayoral election is just five months away, and no credible GOP contender has emerged for an office that the party held from 2009 to 2017. At present, incumbent Democratic Mayor Tim Keller’s main opponent is a conservative Democrat, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, who has even hired Jay McCleskey, a prominent GOP consultant who engineered the winning past campaigns of Susana Martinez and Richard Berry.
Next year’s gubernatorial election represents a key opportunity for Republicans to prove that they can still compete statewide. But the special election result last week became yet another data point for Republicans in the state who think their party is heading in the wrong direction. “This is a district that has definitely changed, but this was embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Mark. Who’s going to run now? Who are you going to get to step up?” said White, the 2008 GOP nominee for the district. “When you’re running statewide, you’ve got to keep Albuquerque within about four or five points.”
Asked about the governor’s race, Pearce says he’s counting on the “gravitational pull” of rising inflation and backlash to Gov. Lujan Grisham’s pandemic policies to create a more favorable environment for Republicans.
As of now, only two lesser-known Republicans have made their candidacies official: Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and Navajo businesswoman Karen Bedonie. But there’s another person who’s rumored to be making calls about running: Pearce. And he left the door open when asked by POLITICO. “I haven’t made that decision yet,” he said. “I’ve got enough name ID that I don’t have to be off hustling to every single corner of the state right now. People know who I am, they know what my values are, and we’ll make that determination as we get closer to the filing deadline.”
Department of International Relations and European StudiesDepartment of International Relations and European Studies – International Burch University (ibu.edu.ba)