You knew Denish vs. Martinez was going to be a donnybrook the second Susana Martinez declared victory on primary night. Since then, this huffing and puffing about these "ladies" not comporting themselves is not just silly, it's insulting. Welcome to modern politics. You get your love at home.
Which is not to say the candidates can get away with anything and everything, try as they have. Their respective planks thus far have been mundane and uninspiring. The accusations about one another are confusing and ultimately forgettable, save one: immigration.
You'll recall Lt. Gov. Diane Denish went there first. The day after her uncontested nomination, in fact, during her first press conference she backpedaled on the idea of giving undocumented New Mexicans driver's licenses.
It was a jolt. Martinez had yet to lay a glove on her, and Denish basically put herself into a corner of the ring, assuming a defensive posture. Was this really necessary? One would expect that if she had a problem with the policy at passage in 2003, she would have said something.
This election might turn on that very issue. Someone is going to ride immigration to Santa Fe.
Let's start with Martinez and her oft-quoted primary stance that illegals are coming here “to do us harm.” (One shudders to think that she may try to amp up her rhetoric as the campaign moves along.) As interviews with illegal immigrants testify, most are not coming here to do Americans harm. The driving force is money and all the things that come with it: food on the table, school uniforms, a roof, whatever. There's plenty of harm to be dished out in Mexico if one is so inclined, thanks.
It was a jolt. Martinez had yet to lay a glove on her, and Denish basically put herself into a corner of the ring, assuming a defensive posture.
One has to wonder if Martinez, as the state's first line of prosecutorial defense down south, has been blinded by the parade of charges and convictions she trumpets. Yes, the border is more than problematic from a law enforcement point of view, but her position is so narrow it’s myopic.
Look, in this climate, the anti-illegal immigrant stance is a no-brainer for a conservative candidate in a border state. National polling shows plenty of Americans in support of Arizona's infamous SB 1070 law. Many of them are the dreaded independents, who are breaking hard for tougher immigration laws. Let us also assume New Mexico independents are tracking the same. The GOP candidate is looking good on this one. So far.
Which brings us back to Denish and her out-of-the-gate proclamation on illegals and driver's licenses. She has done the math. She cannot win—repeat, cannot win—being sideways with independents, who represent roughly 15 percent of registered New Mexico voters. And the independent voting bloc is growing. Here's what else she knows: The math, at this point, is not trending favorably for her.
Look, in this climate, the anti-illegal immigrant stance is a no-brainer for a conservative candidate in a border state.
Earlier this year, an internal Martinez SurveyUSA poll reported by the New Mexico Independent showed Martinez with 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, very close to what Republican strategists consider the magic line for their statewide candidates. (Bush carried New Mexico in ’04 with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. McCain earned 30 percent in ’08 and lost the state.)
Worse, possibly, is that survey also showed Martinez with a solid 50 percent of independent voters (Denish had 38 percent), and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of registered Democrats. Finally, and probably most problematic so far, Martinez held a 44 percent to 48 percent advantage over Denish in Bernalillo County, approaching yet another key Republican threshold for a statewide candidate.
These numbers will vacillate as the campaigns move along, but this is not nearly where anyone thought Denish would be at this point against a relative unknown.
That's why she "went there" early on immigration. The strategy, however, poses all manner of problems. All Martinez needs to do is force Denish to cross threshold after threshold. And along the way progressives and moderates will be slack-jawed, leaning toward their televisions at ever-increasing angles, trying to figure out just who our lieutenant governor is.
Instead, perhaps there's a reasonable middle for Denish to claim. Maybe there's a way to get across the facts of the matter and the humanity while staying out of Martinez' game. She cannot out-brawl the Republican on immigration. She has to find a third way on this issue.
For Martinez, the topic is not a clear playing field. There are land mines aplenty, and she could easily go too far and give those independents some heartburn. One bobbled fact (see: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and her now-trashed assertion that most illegals cross because they are drug mules), one anecdote that hits a little close to too many homes, and her strategy could blow up on her.
What we don't know is the short- or long-term effects of the federal lawsuit against Arizona to push back SB 1070 and, subsequently, the theories inside Martinez’ immigration stance. What the suit could do is reduce the issue to a medium simmer from now until November. It potentially stops similar legislation from rolling across the country, assuming a win in court. And the issue will reframe markedly once President Obama unveils his immigration reform ideas as well.
The immigration conversation is complicated. But the solution is simple: More jobs and prosperity in Mexico means less crossing. If Martinez wants to keep the debate narrow, Denish should counter by opening it wider at every turn by focusing on the reasons people come here in the first place.