Farmington. A bull riding throwdown at the McGee Coliseum on the San Juan County Fairgrounds. A raven-haired girl on a white horse finishes texting a friend, crams the cell into her Wranglers and grabs an enormous American flag on a wooden pole. As “Amazing Grace” blares on bagpipes over the PA, she gallops into the arena fast enough to set Old Glory straight.
The announcer reads a long prayer thanking God for making America “the very best country in the history of the world,” thanking God for the “gift of the flag,” thanking the military for their sacrifice (cheers in the middle of the prayer) and asking God to bless the “animal athletes”: the bulls waiting in the squeeze chutes. Every man in the place has a cowboy hat or cap over his heart. Everyone stands.
This is Red New Mexico, where George W. Bush may no longer be sent from Heaven but is still Commander-in-Chief. On the highway into town, Republican signs outnumber Democrats’ by more than 100-to-1. The only Democratic sign for miles belonged to pro-life Congressional primary candidate Harry Montoya.
Downtown, an adult video store sits isolated from other businesses, as though it’s being shunned. The Archdiocese owns a billboard towering over the cinderblock building. Capital letters warn all who enter: “JESUS CHRIST IS WATCHING YOU.”
Gas field pickups with red pennants waving above their cabs cruise every street and are parked outside every bar and restaurant. In the heart of town, a pump jack bobs silently. The drill pad has been covered with multicolored stone in what looks like an oversized sand painting.
Farmington is booming. Energy prices feed a strong local economy that hasn’t noticed the subprime mortgage blowout. Real estate prices are up. People are moving in.
Republicans are betting on communities like Farmington to help John McCain carry New Mexico. As in 2004, their strategy molds New Mexico into a doughnut, with Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Taos Counties the hole in the middle. Republicans are willing to lose the liberal cities because they believe they can roll up large enough numbers elsewhere to give McCain our five electoral votes.
In the heart of town, a pump jack bobs silently. ... Farmington is booming.
The John Kerry campaign gambled just about everything on those three counties. Doña Ana County was a battleground. Kerry effectively conceded the rest of the state. Bush didn’t even come to Albuquerque until days before the election. Instead, he and Dick Cheney visited Farmington, Hobbs, Roswell and Los Lunas. The doughnut strategy rewarded Republicans with the votes they needed to cancel Kerry’s strength in New Mexico’s liberal strongholds.
Inside McGee Coliseum, another problem for Democrats is on its feet. Navajos fill the place. They’ve turned out to see fellow Navajos Kevin James from Kykotsmovi, Ariz., and Brandon Lincoln, of Second Mesa, Ariz. These men form the first Native American team of protection bull fighters—quick, agile athletes who save fallen cowboys from the wrath of angry bulls—to crack the top ranks of professional bull riding.
The first people on their feet when the flag enters the arena are Navajos. Navajos are the first to cheer, and cheer loudest, at the mention of the armed services. They volunteer for the nation’s military at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population. Certainly, economic conditions contribute. Military pride and the warrior tradition are also deeply ingrained in Navajo culture.
These should be Democratic votes. But John McCain has strong relations with the Navajo Nation. For three decades, he has been building those ties. And his legend of heroism and self-sacrifice is well-known on both sides of the New Mexico-Arizona state line.
In 2004, John Kerry lost New Mexico even with strong support from Native Americans. McCain thinks those votes will be his this year. McCain also thinks he can do better than Bush in Bernalillo County, with its large numbers of veterans and moderate voters.
Iraq has been Barack Obama’s strongest card in the Democratic primary contest, but it may not trump McCain in Red New Mexico. By acknowledging the serious errors made in Iraq, McCain establishes credibility with pro-military voters who have soured on the war but are not willing to accept anything that sounds to them like defeat.
Bashing oil and gas won’t work in the Permian and San Juan basins. Obama’s record on abortion, like Kerry’s, may cause problems with socially conservative Hispanics. Just banging on Bush isn’t going to work, either. He isn’t on the ballot.
Polls show Obama and McCain running even in New Mexico, like Kerry and Bush in 2004. Despite all of Bush’s failings, not much has changed. With New Mexico key to Obama’s Electoral College calculations, that’s not good news for Democrats.