Updated Aug 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP's New Mexico bet

Illustration of an elephant at the top of the New Mexico flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign stop in New Mexico on Sunday is worth watching for two reasons: The state is one of the GOP's best opportunities to flip a Democratic governorship. And the Republican nominee has gotten this far without help from Donald Trump.

Why it matters: New Mexico has the largest share of Hispanic voters of any state in the country. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is currently the nation's only Latina governor. But she's unpopular — and with Hispanic voters poised to continue their rightward shift, Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former TV meteorologist, is suddenly in play.

  • He's well positioned after soundly defeating several MAGA allies in the GOP primary. Real Clear Politics shows Lujan Grisham's polling lead is within the margin of error.
  • New Mexico has surpassed more traditional battlegrounds like Michigan and Pennsylvania on the GOP's radar due to the nomination of weak Republican candidates in those states.

The intrigue: Ronchetti has kept his distance from Trump, who is deeply unpopular in New Mexico, but is betting DeSantis will be a more popular surrogate.

  • That's a risky bet: Ronchetti is a well-liked meteorologist and self-branded family man. DeSantis' harder-edged rhetoric may turn off some swing voters. Ronchetti will need to win over independents and even some moderate Democrats to prevail.

What they're saying: Ronchetti told Axios that Republicans can't win in New Mexico with harsh rhetoric about Hispanics and must focus on issues like crime and the economy to win over the state's swing Latino voters.

  • "We have a lot of conservatives in this state, who are wondering, 'Can we build a movement to do this?' We can. But don't go out and start thinking that you can exclude people in your party," Ronchetti said.

The big picture: Crime and public safety have emerged as the top issues in the campaign, according to strategists involved in the New Mexico race.

  • This month, Lujan Grisham released an out-of-context campaign ad accusing Ronchetti of wanting to "defund the police" based on debate comments criticizing Lujan Grisham's insufficient support for law enforcement. Ronchetti and the Republican Governors' Association hit back by calling her attack an outright lie.
  • The state's Fraternal Order of Police, which hasn't endorsed anyone in the race, criticized the Democrat for misrepresenting Ronchetti's position.

Between the lines: Lujan Grisham has been beset with low approval ratings, staff upheaval and charges of hypocrisy.

  • She initially drew praise for her handling of the pandemic but sparked outrage when she wagged her finger at a press conference at residents who weren't wearing masks.
  • She was then slammed for buying jewelry after she ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses.
  • Lujan Grisham once told a Democratic candidate to leave a lieutenant governor's race over allegations of workplace harassment, only to later pay out thousands of dollars to a former campaign staffer accusing her of sexual misconduct.

Multiple cabinet secretaries in the state's education, health and youth services departments have resigned or been fired in her four years in office as staff complained about the toxic environment of her administration.

The other side: David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, said Republicans' claim they could flip New Mexico is "more bluster than substance."

  • He said the DGA committed $2.5 million to help Lujan Grisham in May, and they expect her to win re-election.
  • “Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has never been in a stronger position for re-election — her campaign has already raised a monumental $7.8 million to date," Dominic Gabello, senior campaign adviser to the governor's re-election campaign, told Axios.

Don't forget: Ronchetti won a contested GOP primary without any support from Trump.

  • Before he ran for Senate in 2019, he said: "I'm a Christian conservative who used to be a Republican until the Orange One. I'm afraid that has taken a part of my soul, and that's not coming back." As a candidate, his campaign later said he was joking.
  • In 2020, Ronchetti came within six points of defeating Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) even as President Biden carried New Mexico by 11 points. As a familiar face on New Mexico TV, he won over independent voters with a pragmatic campaign message.
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