Is Big Bad Bill Sweet William Now?

George W. Bush'S New Mexico Victory Has Dimmed Gov. Richardson'S Shining National Star. But Don'T Count Him Out.

Tim McGivern
12 min read
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New Mexico's 2000 presidential election results

Gore: 286,783

Bush: 286,417

New Mexico's 2004 presidential election results (as of Nov. 19)

Bush: 376,940

Kerry: 370,893

When George W. Bush secured New Mexico's five electoral votes, his victory looked to some folks like a political right hook planted squarely on Gov. Bill Richardson's nationally adored chin. Richardson was, after all, the Democratic Party's anointed leader of the growing Hispanic electorate in the Southwest and, maybe someday, beyond. Except a funny thing happened: Bush won Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida—the five states Moving America Forward, Richardson's political action committee, targeted as a collective battleground that Hispanics could help capture for Sen. John Kerry.

None of these five, of course, was more sacred to Richardson's cause than New Mexico. In 2000, our state was the lone blue square in the electoral map's sea of red that doglegged from the Rockies east across the Bible Belt. For the last four years that lonely bit of blue symbolized the Democrats' connection to western America. And now, with New Mexico's electoral blue turning red, the national GOP strategy seems to have come full circle. Or, as Greg Graves, executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party, described Bush's victory recently: “The East Coast and Left Coast philosophy of the Democrats shows they are out of touch with middle America.” That sentiment, you might imagine, will become a talking point for GOP strategists for the next few years. They needed New Mexico on their side to fully legitimize that claim, and now they have it.

Or do they?

Bluer than Blue

Despite network TV's simplified, gradient-free electoral map, just how red of a state is New Mexico?

The only two statewide races this year, which fell just below the presidential race on the ballot, show that Bush had no coattails. In a contest for the New Mexico Supreme Court, Edward Chavez, a Richardson appointee and Hispanic Democrat, easily defeated Republican Ned Fuller. And Michael Vigil, another Hispanic Democrat appointed by Richardson, easily defeated Republican Paul Barber for a seat on the state Court of Appeals. Barber and Fuller ran a Stuck on You-style campaign, appearing together frequently, especially in staunchly conservative sections of southern New Mexico, railing against the “fuzzy headed liberalitis” that ostensibly defined their opponents. As the yard signs proclaimed, together they were going to rescue the courts. The campaign clearly aimed to be a localized echo of Bush's opposition to “frivolous lawsuits” and “activist judges.” However, Chavez and Vigil each won by roughly 100,000 votes. In the lower courts, 95 percent of Richardson's appointments also won.

That's not all. The state Supreme Court hasn't elected a Republican since 1986, and the state Court of Appeals is split 9-2, with a Democrat majority. The Legislature is not just Democrat-controlled—a look at the state leadership reveals it is Hispanic Democrat-controlled. Richardson is also quick to remind folks that while Bush won New Mexico by one of the slightest margins in the nation this year, Republicans did not pick up a single state legislative seat.

National Notoriety

Still, what does Sen. John Kerry's defeat mean for Richardson's political future? Failing to transfer his popularity to Kerry took the shine out of the governor's rising national star in the aftermath. The Democratic Party elites in Washington certainly put the blame for failure in the Southwest squarely on his shoulders. And why not? Richardson went out of his way to make himself a national power player for the Kerry campaign.

But, then again, who ever said popularity was transferable? Certainly not Republican John Sanchez, who was supported by Pete Domenici in 2002 but wound up at the bottom of one of the biggest gubernatorial landslides in state history. Look at Kerry's victory in the home states of Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger for more proof.

While New Mexico is a capricious state, it does know how to pick a winning president regardless of who is governor. Other than 1976 when the state swung to Gerald Ford, New Mexico has always gone with the majority vote-getter. It is definitely a swing state, and for the presidential choice it was all a matter of perspective, or what Richardson likes to call “a very personal decision.”

According to's exit polling, “moral values” reflected the priority issue for 23 percent of voters statewide, followed by “Iraq” at 20 percent, “terrorism” at 18 percent and “jobs/economy” at 17 percent. Voters concerned with moral values and terrorism overwhelmingly went with Bush, while voters concerned with Iraq and the economy overwhelmingly went with Kerry.

Now before going any further, keep in mind these were the opinions of people voting on election day, but nearly half of the votes statewide were cast prior to Nov. 2. According to New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff, there is no proof that an election day voter matches the same profile of an early voter. “They're not the same people,” he said. “We still need more time to study [exit poll data].”

Still, while evidence suggests that abortion and gay marriage superseded concerns over health care, the economy and the Iraq war in the minds of many election day voters, the story in New Mexico came down to a more familiar election term—ground game. Simply put, the Republicans delivered base voters from the eastern and southern parts of the state in prodigious numbers thanks to Bush's campaigning in areas no president had gone before—rural outposts like Lea and Chaves Counties. He also went to San Juan County in the Four Corners and there, said Sanderoff, was where the race was decided.

“Farmington did it for Bush,” he said matter-of-factly.

The Democrats also turned out record numbers statewide, but it wasn't enough. For example, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces all went for Kerry. In north-central New Mexico, led by Taos and Santa Fe Counties, Kerry won 46,000 votes compared to Gore's 28,000. Even so, Sanderoff noted that voter turnout was flat in Hispanic Democratic strongholds like Rio Arriba, Mora and Guadalupe Counties compared to the record turnout in many other parts of the state. Most importantly, he said, the Native American turnout in San Juan County was “light,” which Kerry needed to neutralize Bush's enormous output there.

The point is, both sides were supported locally by extraordinary get-out-the-vote efforts, which resulted in approximately 150,000 newly registered voters. As of Nov. 18 (the final count was scheduled to be certified on Nov. 23, after this story went to press), Kerry received roughly 80,000 more votes than Al Gore when he won New Mexico four years ago. On the other hand, Bush pulled in approximately 86,000 more votes compared to his narrow 366-vote loss in 2000.

No New Strategy

The same argument—that popularity is not transferable—applies to Albuquerque as well, where John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in early, absentee and election day voting and won by more than 10,000 votes, but Republican Heather Wilson still defeated Democratic challenger Richard Romero by an even larger margin. Unquestionably, thousands of District One voters picked Kerry and Wilson on the same ballot. Knowing Bush would have no coattails, Wilson pandered to Democrats, at one point comparing her voting record to San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi's—a Machiavellian moment if there ever was one in Albuquerque politics—while also employing Sen. John McCain to help her cause in TV spots proclaiming she's “not afraid to buck her own party.” It was a sensible, although dishonest, strategy. But Wilson was willing to do whatever it took to win. The same could be said for Richardson's willingness to help Kerry, but ultimately it was the candidate's race to win or lose.

For example, Richardson participated in more than 40 Democratic Party rallies in the months prior to Nov. 2. He was featured on TV, radio and robo-calls across the state. He took a train trip with Sen. Kerry across northern New Mexico and even tried to buy the Massachusetts senator a cowboy hat at Western Wearhouse in Old Town. But Kerry's staff balked, perhaps imagining the photo, akin to Michael Dukakis' tank helmet fiasco in 1988, running on the Drudge Report homepage for a week. In retrospect, the discordant episode might symbolize Kerry's forlorn chances in the Southwest, counting on Richardson's connection to the electorate more than his own, to win.

Meanwhile, according to Billy Sparks, the governor's communications director, Albuquerque was second nationally only to Miami in combined media ad buys. Leading the way, the political savagery sponsored by the Republican-backed Swift Boat Veterans group saturated the airwaves from August until Halloween. In a state with nearly 200,000 veterans among a voting population of 750,000, its impact might well have been the difference, considering Kerry lost his four-point lead in the third week of August and never regained it. Iago himself couldn't have put together a more sinister attack on Kerry, but it seems to have worked.

After a few weeks of introspection, Richardson, instead of making excuses, praised the GOP efforts.

“You gotta give Republicans credit for turning their base out in record numbers,” he said last week, before offering his usual sanguine expectations for the future. “We cannot panic and all of a sudden become Republican. It's not just morality and church; it's health care and jobs. We have ceded that territory on values, but it's a problem of communication. We should not all of a sudden oppose some of the basic civil rights of our party. Instead we should expand the definition of values.”

The governor said he'll be consolidating his own power base over the next two years before he seeks re-election in 2006.

“I think the Republicans are whistling Dixie saying there is a policy shift in New Mexico,” Richardson said. “The West is still virgin territory for the Democrats and Kerry substantially won the Hispanic vote.”

Richardson ardently rejects the early exit polling that gave Bush 44 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide. “They are wrong, inflated for Bush,” he said. “He at best hit 35 percent.”

Brian Sanderoff said the fact that national Hispanic voting trends mirrored New Mexico (roughly 60-40 favoring Kerry) shows Richardson is the wrong person to blame for Bush's victory in the state. “I'm at a loss at all this finger-pointing,” said Sanderoff. “This race was decided by what was happening in Washington and Baghdad more than what was happening in the governor's office.”

Sanderoff said his exit polling suggests Bush carrying 40 percent of the Hispanic vote at best in New Mexico, and more likely somewhere in the high 30s.

Christine Sierra, a political science professor at UNM, also expressed some skepticism over the exit poll results for New Mexico published by CNN. She is part of a group of political scientists nationwide that have begun analyzing the sampling and methodology used on Election Day.

“As political scientists we are very concerned about election results and reliability,” Sierra said. “Whatever the amount of vote shift among Hispanics—it is perhaps smaller (than reported)—nevertheless, it was a critical factor in Kerry losing the election. The Republicans looked for high 30s to 40 percent and I think they did meet that goal. Even if they are inflated, my question is: How tenuous or permanent is this shift? And we simply don't know that answer.”

Perhaps the best news for Richardson comes from a few politically active Republicans in New Mexico who concede that the aftermath of the election will soon be forgotten as local politics move to the forefront. In the end, they say his record as governor will be the litmus test for any future pursuits for national office. And it's worth remembering, governors have faired far better than senators at winning the White House over the past several decades.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

To borrow a wayward analogy from Randall “Tex” Cobb: If you want to find an outlaw, you call an outlaw. If you want to know what one leading Republican thinks the election outcome means to Richardson, GOP executive director Greg Graves isn't sold on the idea that the governor has been weakened politically.

“That's silly,” said Graves. “He's a forceful guy that has an agenda, and I don't think his agenda has been derailed. He'll learn from this and put together an organizational structure that will deliver his vote,” adding: “And if he doesn't, then we're going to beat him.”

In an interview with the Alibi last week, the governor said the presidential election is secondary to a successful legislative session in months ahead, and then he rattled off a series of issues—higher education reform, early childhood development programs, more tax cuts, more DWI crackdown. “Pragmatic centrist solutions,” he said. Richardson is also set to become chairman of the Democratic Governors Association where, “we'll try to have a more assertive role in the party, not ceding to the Dems in Washington.” And then, of course, he'll be seeking a second term in 2006.

Despite the overwhelming centralized power enjoyed by the Democrats at the Roundhouse, Richardson eagerly added that he wants to work with Republicans on election reform. Following this year's prolonged vote counting episode, which the governor described as a “semi-debacle,” this week he announced a series of proposals, including a verifiable paper trail of votes cast. He said he has begun talking with Republican House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs about “some form of voter ID” legislation.

About that 2004 election. Although politics is all about perception, in New Mexico, George W. Bush won with, in his words, superior strategery. It wasn't lost by anybody. That opinion both sides, at least locally, seem to agree on. But will Kerry's defeat have a crippling effect on Richardson's national ranking among the Democratic Party elites, especially in four years? Nobody really knows.

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