After allowing more than a month for responses, the nonpartisan organization Project Vote Smart compiled the results of its Political Courage Test that asks primary challengers to reveal their positions on a range of topics. Out of the 24 surveys given to U.S. congressional candidates in New Mexico, only five candidates returned them: Joe Carraro, Robert Pidcock, Rebecca Vigil-Giron, Greg Sowards and Dan East.
At 21 percent, it’s the lowest rate of response in a presidential election year since testing started in 1996, when 86 percent were returned. The response rate decreased to 44 percent in 2000. “The test results are dismal, not just here in New Mexico, but nationwide,” says Adelaide Elm Kimball, a board member and senior adviser for Project Vote Smart, who works out of Arizona.
The survey is meant to have the same impartial spirit conceived when Project Vote Smart was founded in 1992 by diverse leaders like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The 30 board members, including Newt Gingrich and Michael Dukakis, must approve the test.
The project’s staff, members of the media and party leaders contact candidates through letters and alert them through newspaper editorials. More tests will be given out for the general election with pleas for participation by phone. "The contacts are to stress the candidate’s obligation to address their constituency," explains Kimball, who adds it’s a chance for the politicians to take a break from slinging mud and making stump speeches.
During their careers, Sens. Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D) never filled out a questionnaire from Project Vote Smart when facing re-election. Similarly, Reps. Heather Wilson (R), Tom Udall (D) and Steve Pearce (R), from Districts 1, 2 and 3 respectively, declined the request. This means no one representing New Mexico on the national level completed the survey.
Marissa Padilla, spokesperson for Udall’s campaign for Senate, says, “Tom Udall has shown that he has the integrity to do what’s right for New Mexicans. He has always made his positions readily available.” She adds his positions are online at www.tomudall.com. Brian Phillips, who works on Pearce's campaign, says the campaign gets a lot of surveys, and no one at People for Pearce remembers seeing the Political Courage Test. Several attempts were made to contact Wilson’s Senate campaign by e-mail and phone, but no messages were returned by press time.
"The campaign tactics to manipulate voters is the same on both sides," says Kimball, who adds that the only way for a candidate to fail the test is to refuse to give voters the information.
Former Secretary of State Vigil-Giron (D), who is seeking the First Congressional District seat, says the Political Courage Test was progressive and helped her research issues that matter. If more people acknowledged that these concerns need to be addressed, "maybe we wouldn't be in the fix we are today," Vigil-Giron adds.
State Sen. Carraro (R), who is also running in this week’s Republican primary for the First Congressional District seat, says these kinds of questionnaires should be a requirement for all candidates.
Vigil-Giron has never shied away from publicly taking a stand, she says, which is evident in the support she indicated on the test for federal government funding of universal pre-K programs. Carraro says the only difficultly was answering yes or no on withdrawing from Iraq or maintaining troop levels. The answer requires an opportunity to get information from military commanders, he adds, and depends on the defined mission.
The Political Courage Test is administered every two years, and each time, the questions are updated. They’re based on issues that will be addressed in the next session of Congress and on topics polls have concluded are the top concerns of Americans.
The primary tests were administered in 12 states, with North Carolina’s 37 percent as the largest return. Project Vote Smart is testing in every state for which it can get a candidate list at least four weeks before the primaries, says Kimball, and will continue to test in other states through the September primaries.
“[Project Vote Smart] is founded with the idea that all citizens need access to information they can trust" says Kimball. She adds that www.votesmart.org gets millions of hits a day.
The database contains profiles on more than 40,000 elected officials, including campaign contributions, voting records and contact information. “It is a real effort to improve our political landscape through a voter self-defense system, where citizens can arm themselves against the hype and spin,” Kimball says.
Candidates can skip up to 30 percent of the issue areas on this test, which include the often divisive subjects of abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. There is also space to write in another option instead of checking the provided choices.
"They really control the responses,” says Kimball, who adds that participation is more about being responsible for an opinion. “Every candidate ought to be willing to answer.”
Carraro stresses the importance of transparency. "It can be better politically not to answer, but it is not right,” says Carraro, who was honest on the test about supporting English as the official national language and affirming that illegal immigrants should return to their countries of origin before being considered for citizenship.
Kimball says consultants advise candidates not to respond to the Political Courage Test because it is not a controlled campaign message and will expose them to opposition research.
"Parties have become more influential and tougher," says Carraro, who adds that parties benefit from keeping the electorate uninformed, because then races are about personalities and money. He says that basing a vote on things like endorsements only increase party influence. “This is why politics is dirty and has become venomous.”