Bottom Line: After losing the governorship and six seats in the House, the biggest question mark for Democrats left in the wake of the elections last night is the future of leadership in the NM state house. Will Ben Lujan continue in January as Speaker of the House, or will he step down, or be forced to step down by Democrats or by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans? A lot of conversations among House members will revolve around this question in the next six weeks. The answer to this question will go a long way toward defining the character of the Democratic Party in New Mexico for the next two years. Voters: watch this issue and study the actions of your own legislator carefully, if s/he is a Democrat.
The only good news for Democrats this morning is that Republican gains were not more extensive (I'm thinking especially about the attorney general and land commission races, which were barely won by seasoned Democratic candidates running against young rank amateurs), and that a perfect storm rarely happens twice in a row.
The perfect storm: the national mood hurt Democrats and certainly was decisive in the eleven point margin Pearce held over Teague. It almost cost Heinrich his seat, and helps account for the surprisingly strong showing by Tom Mullins, who fell only 3000 votes shy of the total winning vote for Steve Pearce in a district that heavily favors Hispanic candidates. The statewide mood had also soured on Democrats, given the growing conviction among voters that Richardson is not the only problem within the up-to-now ruling party: well informed Democrats told me in Mora, for example, that many people felt Speaker Ben Lujan's strong support for Richardson's agenda in the past two years (which included a lot of highly questionable expenditures for his personal pet projects) came at their expense. Susana lost Mora county by about ten points, but she ran twenty points ahead of most Republicans in that county. So the statewide scenario was equally unfavorable for the Democratic ticket.
The perfect storm effect of national and statewide thundershowers was felt all the way up and down the ticket. For a party accustomed to governing easily at the mid-and bottom-levels of state government, perhaps the most emblematic outcome last night was the squeaker vote that brought Court of Appeals Judge Robert Robles, the incumbent, barely a 1.6% victory against Ned Fuller; it could have gone either way. It was also felt in countless races at the bottom of the local tickets; for example, in Dona Ana County Olivia Garcia, who normally wins by twenty points or more was forced to stay up until midnight last night to know the outcome, squeezing out a 52.5% victory against a virtually unknown opponent, and only after the South Mesilla Valley votes (heavily Democrat) came in at the end.
For Democrats and Republicans alike in New Mexico, this is an existential moment. Given the nature and severity of the problems confronting the state, who are we? What do we stand for? What do we propose to do to solve our problems? Given the reality that the governor will be a Republican and the legislature will be Democrat, how do we go about trying to make state government work again, after several years of poor leadership? As I said in something I wrote nearly two years ago: the state is begging for leadership and voters, for once, are watching.