Democrat incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham maintains several advantages in the 2022 New Mexico governor’s race: the Lujan name carries weight in New Mexico, she outraised the entire GOP field in the primary, and there is power in incumbency.
But there are other factors in the race that are likely to favor GOP challenger Mark Ronchetti: Grisham’s low approval rating, low turnout in the June primary, an a dangerous trend among registered voters fleeing the Democrat Party.
Michelle Losing the Popularity Contest
Grisham ranks among the least popular governors in the country. In a Morning Consult poll released in April, she placed seventh-worst with 48% approval. In May, a SurveyUSA poll found the same split: 48% approve, 45% don’t.
With a 10% undecided bloc and double the fundraising of her opponent, Grisham has more than enough room to pull herself over the 50% threshold to win re-election. But turnout could be a problem, and if history is any indicator of the future, the erosion of the Democrat Party’s voter registration advantage could be problematic for the incumbent.
Low Turnout Favors GOP
Voter turnout in the June 7 primary was the lowest since 2014, at 25.5%, a good omen for Ronchetti.
Turnout in New Mexico primaries has averaged 30% since 2014, but only 24% in midterm elections (non-presidential races). General election turnout exactly doubled primary turnout, at 48% (compared to 66% in the last two presidential election years).
If past trends hold, New Mexico can expect about 50% turnout this November. That’s seven percentage points lower than 2018, when Grisham was first elected, but nine percentage points higher than Susana Martinez’s midterm re-election in 2014.
MLG won by 14 points against Republican Steve Pearce, the same spread that carried Martinez to a second term against Gary King.
This makes it difficult to read the political tea leaves until you remember that Grisham in 2018 didn’t have the albatross of political ally Joe Biden, an economy on the brink of recession, record gas prices, and two years of draconian COVID rules that failed to accomplish any of the results Grisham, the state health department, or the beloved Dr. Fauci promised.
(As of this writing, New Mexico ranks eighth worst in the country in COVID deaths, cases are up 42% in the last two weeks, masking has been debunked, and two years of monthly emergency declarations proved only to hobble New Mexico’s post-COVID economic recovery.)
The Biden Albatross
Just as Republicans had to carry the coattails of Donald Trump in 2020 (contributing to Ronchetti’s six-point loss to Ben Ray Lujan for U.S. Senate, no doubt), Democrats are weighed down by Joe Biden’s failing economy and historically low approval.
Both the Conservative-leaning RealClearPolitics and the Liberal-leaning 538 show the president’s aggregate approval rating under 40%. Nate Silver ranks Biden as the most unpopular president at this point in his first term since at least the last 70 years. (Yes, that includes Trump, who was nearly 3 points higher than Biden at this point in his first term.)
Democrats have been losing ground on the state level, as well.
According to Secretary of State registration data, 99% percent of voter registrations in the last decade have favored Republicans and Independents.
The Democrat Party added 698 voters to its rolls since 2012, which is dismal compared to the 25,000 new Republican registrants and 62,000 Independents gained in that timeframe. Most of that occurred prior to Joe Biden’s election, 40-year-high inflation, and record high gas prices.
Susana Did It With Fewer Republicans
New Mexico has been a Democrat-majority state for the better part of a century, but we have had our fair share of Republican governors. Martinez won by six points in 2010 despite a 47%-32% Democrat advantage in statewide voters. She cruised through her re-election in 2014, beating Gary King with 57% of the vote despite a 47%-31% Democrat voter advantage.
As of May 2022, the most recent data available, Democrats hold a 44%-31% advantage, with 22.6% of voters identifying as Independent (up from 18% a decade ago).
These numbers could prove pivotal in November.
Only 20.9% of Democrats showed up to vote in the June primary, compared to 28.1% for Republicans. Grisham didn’t have a primary challenger, which may have contributed to lower-than-expected turnout, but beyond her die-hard base, moderate Democrats are struggling to find a good reason to turn out for another four years of MLG.
She “delivered” on “free” college and recreational marijuana, but jobs are down, crime is up, and the state continues to rank last in everything from education to welfare. Those aren’t partisan issues, and if Ronchetti can capitalize on the national “Red Wave” to maximize Republican turnout, a moderate message offering practical policies may attract enough Independents and Democrats to flip the governor’s mansion.