This piece will also appear in NMPolitics by Heath Haussamen.
The political scene in New Mexico this year should be tailor-made for a Republican comeback. After eight years of Richardson mischief people are begging for change. Corruption appears to be rooting itself into state government; no peep about it within ruling circles. The state has been on a huge spending binge; but little to show for it: Mr. "Education Governor" created a huge, expensive education bureaucracy, gobbling up half the state budget, but low achievement scores of students continue to show New Mexico in 48th or 49th place out of 50. Universities, which eat up 15% of the state budget have been highly politicized, especially at UNM where a bloated, incompetent administration has lost the respect of faculty and students. State agencies have become fiefdoms with arrogant bureaucrats drawing fat salaries, unaccountable to the public. Fiscal crisis? After ignoring it for a year the legislature belatedly makes cuts--but hey, don't touch the $90 million giveaway to the governor's Hollywood buddies, this one is "near and dear" to the governor's heart.
If ever a political party was given a shot at power by discredited incumbents, it would be the Republican Party of New Mexico in 2010. Nevertheless, it is far from clear Republicans will convince a skeptical public to allow it to govern the state, no matter how eager it is for change.
After eight years of unprecedented deficit spending under a Republican President, capped off by a trillion dollar welfare check from George Bush to the very biggest banks in the U.S.--remember the bonuses?--and a third of a trillion dollar buyout of "troubled assets" to save the skins of slick, over-exposed investment bankers; after a near-catastrophic experiment in nation building abroad; after massive failures in management of the nation's affairs (Katrina, foreign policy just about everywhere, and a colossal failure to regulate the financial sector which precipitated the biggest recession since the Great Depression) the stereotypical Republican Small Businessman who used to preach fiscal responsibility, restraint in foreign policy, marketplace risk of failure for all businesses, and the efficient management of taxpayer money, must be wondering just how sincere his or her legislators in Washington are as they screech about Obama's stimulus spending after years of breaking the bank themselves on behalf of their corporate lobbyists. Since President Obama, health care aside, is remarkably loyal to the major policy directions of President Bush, the orchestrated campaigns against him from official Republican Washington seem oddly off-base, and, indeed, mistrust of both sides has set off an angry conservative revolt: does anyone really believe a McCain or Romney, health care and rhetoric aside, would be doing anything different?
Here in New Mexico, where Republicans for the most part fit the classic small business-sound management-fiscal conservative- limited government-moderate social policy mold, the last few years must have been tolerable only because, yes, the tax cuts were real, and until recently New Mexicans were making money, often through government contracts. But there is a serious breach between the behavior of Republicans in Washington and the values of most Republicans in New Mexico, a breach that must leave many Republicans--don't even mention Democrats--in New Mexico wondering whether the national party can be trusted to protect their relatively modest interests.
In part because of this breach, the state Republican Party has had a disastrous run of luck. When Gary Johnson left office in 2002 the party boasted one U.S. Senator, two Representatives, and a popular Land Commissioner. Today there are no R's from New Mexico in Washington, and Lyons is termed out. Many Republicans played ostrich when the Richardson administration began to drown itself in pay-to-play corruption. Instead of acting out the role of opposition party, keeping Richardson's excesses in the public eye, and offering alternative proposals, many Republican legislators and lobbyists simply cut side deals with the governor, for marginal benefits. As a result the public, already confused by the breach between the national and local parties, has no clear idea what the New Mexico Republican Party or prominent Republicans think about the state of affairs in New Mexico. One symptom: the party has had difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to run against incumbents.
As if these problems were not enough, a long-term weakness has plagued the party since the 1940's. Hispanics, who now comprise 46% of the state, show a strong preference for the Democratic Party. Only about 15% of Republicans are Hispanic; over half the Democrats are Hispanic. Democrats can usually count on the vast majority of Hispanics, and a healthy minority of Anglos, for a win. Hispanics are aware the GOP opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960's, opposed affirmative action in the 1970's and 1980's without offering alternative policies, and more recently have proposed draconian legislation against unauthorized workers while winking sympathetically at the equally illegal employers who hired them: this, from the party of Lincoln? As long as the equation between the parties is ethnically lop-sided, the Republican Party will remain marginal, unable to govern except when things go wrong among Democrats. This is not healthy. Government works best when there is serious competition. But playing violins about the Blessings of Liberty that will shower us all with just one more tax cut to the wealthy is not likely to appeal to a population that in New Mexico earned $15,513 per capita from 2005-2007, compared to a white, non-Hispanic per capita income in New Mexico of $30,236, and whose children are not graduating from schools with the skills they need for college.
So while many winds are blowing this year in a Republican direction, a GOP victory in the New Mexico gubernatorial election is not a given.
Win or lose, with Senator Domenici gone and Gary Johnson a distant memory, the 2010 gubernatorial nominee will become the new face of the New Mexico Republican Party. It is a moment of truth .
Will the nominee speak to New Mexicans from New Mexico? Or will operatives come in fresh from other states, look at some poll results, and patch together a generic campaign filled with New Mexico-looking photo ops but sounding like something out of Iowa ? Will the nominee really address the current fiscal crisis and level with us about priorities? Or instead will we get another sermon about how bad Washington is? Can the nominee convince us s/he is ready to govern? With integrity and character? Or will the candidate run against Bill Richardson, hoping to be elected as punishment for the past? Lastly, will the nominee be able to look at Hispanic and Native American voters in the eye and make a case why his/her election would be in their best interests? Or will s/he continue to ignore painful ethnic realities, offering only campaign rhetoric carefully calculated not to offend? For two years I've been saying New Mexicans this time are paying attention. We're about to find out if that is so among Republicans.