Republican Susana Martinez cruised to victory Tuesday, riding a crest of voter discontent and anger over a broken economy to become New Mexico’s first female governor — and the first Hispanic woman in the country to lead a U.S. state.
Unofficial results late Tuesday showed Martinez capturing nearly 54 percent of the vote, to Democrat Diane Denish’s 46 percent.
The first-time candidate for statewide office made winning look easy, an outcome that would have seemed laughably optimistic in June when Martinez and Democrat Diane Denish first squared off but which felt like a foregone conclusion Tuesday after the Doña Ana district attorney had led in the polls for months.
But crowds of her supporters erupted into applause in Albuquerque on Tuesday evening as local pollster Brian Sanderoff and NBC News called the race only an hour and a half after New Mexico polls had closed.
“This victory tonight says something,” Martinez told supporters Tuesday night. “This message says something, that someone who grew up in a working family just a few miles from the border can achieve anything. The message sent to all those children watching tonight is the American dream is alive and well.”
Martinez also took time in her comments to acknowledge Denish’s service as lieutenant governor.
Denish meanwhile conceded the race in a speech shortly before 10 p.m.
“We fought a good fight for the state we love,” Denish said in an e-mail her campaign sent out shortly afterward. “Thank you for joining me and for standing with me throughout this campaign. I end this race more proud than ever to be a Democrat and to stand up for Democratic values. I believe government can – and must – be a force for good. I will never back down from that belief.”
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, also issued a statement commending Denish’s run for governor.
“In a tough national environment that could not be more challenging, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish ran a robust campaign,” Markell said. “Although she fell short of victory tonight, we applaud Diane for her commitment to strengthening small businesses, expanding Pre-K and standing up to powerful interests.”
Markell finished by congratulating Martinez, wishing her well in her role as governor.
GOP wins big with Martinez
Martinez’s victory puts the GOP in control of the state’s top office following eight years of Democratic control of nearly all levers of state government. Martinez succeeds outgoing two-term Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.
It also gives the GOP more of a say in large national issues affecting New Mexico.
As governor, Martinez will preside over New Mexico when the 2012 presidential election rolls around. Governors are often viewed as powerful resources for a party’s nominee during a presidential election, especially in a battleground state like New Mexico.
Then there’s redistricting, the decennial tradition the New Mexico Legislature is about to embark on that requires redrawing the state’s legislative, and federal congressional districts. A Republican governor acts as a counterweight to the Democratically controlled Legislature during redistricting, political observers have said.
But before those big-picture issues come into focus Martinez will have plenty to keep her busy. She takes over New Mexico at a time when thorny problems beset New Mexico, especially high unemployment and state budget woes that will force leaders into making uncomfortable decisions.
She also must contend with a Democratic Legislature that feuded with the last GOP governor, two-term Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
Time will tell if the new Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders can work together during the upcoming legislative session to address the problems confronting New Mexicans.
Massive out-of-state spending fueled race
Martinez’s resounding victory over Denish, who was once viewed as the race’s front-runner, was due to a convergence of factors: a sour economy, voters wanting change after eight years of Richardson, several high-profile scandals involving Democrats, and fundraising machine that helped Martinez reap more than $5 million in cash since late June, state records show. It took Denish all of this year and part of last to raise that kind of dough, according to state records.
In out-of-state money, in oil-and-gas giving, in the number of eye-popping contributions, Martinez beat Denish on every front in the battle for dollars, campaign finance reports show.
National GOP organizations and allies gave Martinez a big boost, especially the Republican Governors Association, which contributed about $1.3 million, or nearly 20 percent of Martinez’s fundraising, through last Tuesday.
Top Republican donors also gave big, including Wyoming investor Foster Friess, who wrote Martinez a $200,000 check, and Texas financier Bob Perry, who gave Martinez a single $350,000 contribution prior to this year’s Republican primary.
Perry, a Texas developer, helped underwrite the 2004 attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Denish also scored big contributions; she had several six-figure donations from labor unions during the election cycle, including two in the last campaign finance report filed. But the big money seemed to be too little, too late to slow down the Martinez juggernaut.
Negative ads permeated the airwaves
Tuesday night culminated a four-month gubernatorial contest in which negative ads and harsh, sometimes personal, attacks saturated the airwaves. Both sides often played fast and loose with the facts.
The Denish campaign called Martinez a “Tejana,” attempting to paint Martinez as an outsider – both for her birthplace, El Paso, Tex.,, and for the amount of money she had received from Texas contributors, which accumulated into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Martinez campaign answered back with ads that portrayed Denish as a corrupt crony of Gov. Bill Richardson, whose administration has weathered several large scandals, including federal criminal investigations, who also was married to a shady lobbyist.
The negative tone of the campaign was so overbearing KOB-TV anchor Tom Joles joked about it during the last gubernatorial debate, quipping after a particularly attack-free portion that “We’ve just made history. We’ve gone four minutes and neither candidate has attacked the other.”
In the end it was Martinez’s hammering away at corruption and her repeated suggestions that Denish was tied to the Richardson administration that seemed to damage Denish’s chances the most. The prosecutor bludgeoned Denish again and again over her eight years in Santa Fe as lieutenant governor, a period that coincided with an eruption of scandals that took down several high-profile Democrats and tarnished Richardson’s once-shiny national appeal.
Denish never was implicated in any of the scandals. And contrary to Martinez’s attacks a lieutenant governor is not usually in a governor’s inner circle, determining state policy. Like the U.S. vice president, the office of the lieutenant governor is mostly for show.
But that didn’t matter. Martinez’s attacks seemed effective with voters, who were already angry over the economy and high unemployment, and appeared ready to vote in new state leadership. Voter surveys show Richardson with the lowest approval ratings of his eight years as governor.
“Everything from loss of jobs to dropout rates, Diane Denish was being blamed for as part of the Richardson administration,” New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc. said of the Martinez campaign. ”They saw it as key campaign tactic, and I think I worked.”
The Denish campaign “had a tough decision to make, whether to ignore these associations or to defend. And they chose not to defend,” Sanderoff added.
The pollster then ticked off a few Richardson administration accomplishments: the lowering of the state income tax; eliminating food from the state gross receipts tax; its tough stance on DWIs; and its pro-business stance.
“Those would have been good messages in this anti-tax, anti-establishment year,” Sanderoff said. Defending the Richardson administration “may have been tough, but it doesn’t look like ignoring (the associations) worked either,” he said.
At the same time the Martinez campaign attacked Denish it followed a strict regimen of limiting her exposure to media, thereby reducing the chances that the candidate might stumble and giving Denish and the Democrats fodder to use in attack ads.
The campaign also skipped several endorsement interviews, and cut off access to media outlets it viewed as unsuitably aggressive.
Challenges await Martinez on Day One
Martinez now will take over as governor at an unenviable time when New Mexico’s coffers are empty, and the state’s leaders face some difficult decisions ahead.
Governing, the old saying goes, is always harder than campaigning. And Martinez likely will find out how true it is come January, when she is sworn in as the state’s chief executive. Several weeks later state lawmakers will converge on Santa Fe for what is expected to be one of the most difficult legislative sessions in memory.
The first priority will be to balance the state budget.
Martinez made promises on the campaign trail that she might find hard to keep as she and state lawmakers cobble together a state spending plan, beginning in January when the next legislative session starts.
Like Denish, Martinez promised not to raise taxes in her first year at the same time she promised not to cut two of the largest areas in the state budget — public education and Medicaid, the government’s low-income health insurance program. Education and Medicaid make up 60 percent of the state budget.
Such statements provoked skepticism among state lawmakers and people familiar with how the budget works.
Legislative sessions are usually graveyards for election-year promises as rhetoric and philosophical conviction give way to pragmatic deal-making and compromise, especially during tough economic times.
The 2011 legislative session awaits Martinez as the first test of her governing capabilities, including how she works with lawmakers from the other party on difficult budget issues.
On Tuesday night Martinez appeared to acknowledge the tough road ahead.
“We need to work across the aisle,” she told supporters, to fix the problems confronting New Mexico.
(Photo credit: susanamartinez2010.com)