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Susana Martinez Has Conservative Cred, High Approval Ratings

Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

Heath Haussamen, editor and publisher of NMPolitics.net, an online publication covering New Mexico politics, said Martinez has grown into the job as governor and appears comfortable with her role as a prominent Republican Hispanic woman. Although Martinez could stay quiet until New Mexico’s 2012 legislative session concludes, most likely in the spring, Haussamen expects her to embrace the national spotlight and work hard to deliver the state’s five electoral votes.

“The GOP establishment in Washington is clearly excited about Martinez, and seems more eager to have Martinez be a player on the national scene than she does,” Haussamen said. “That said, Martinez is clearly aware of her star power.”

“She’s quite telegenic. She brings something to the table,” agreed Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based blogger who covers New Mexico politics.

Martinez, 52, is a former Democrat from Doña Ana County in Southern New Mexico. In the mid-1990s, the then-county prosecutor decided her positions on major issues were more in line with the GOP. After switching parties, Martinez ran for district attorney in 1996 — and won, despite the county’s heavy Democratic tilt. As of mid-December, the governor’s job approval rating stood at 65 percent.

That rating, revealed in a survey conducted by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies, accompanied a 90 percent job approval rating from Republicans; 62 percent rating from both independents and self-identified Hispanics; 74 percent from “soft Democrats”; and 49 percent from “hard Democrats.” The poll had an error margin of 4.4 points.

Martinez’s high ratings with Democrats, Hispanics and independents come despite her aggressive pursuit of a repeal of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and challenging New Mexico’s public education establishment to accept reforms.

Fred Nathan, executive director of the Santa Fe-based centrist think tank Think New Mexico, said Martinez’s governance has been unmistakably conservative. The governor, initially an underdog in the 2010 race, ran as an unapologetic conservative and has not changed course since taking office.

“Based on her first year in office Gov. Martinez seems much more a fiscal conservative than a social conservative,” Nathan said. “She has invested most of her political capital in reducing the size of government and cutting taxes, while ignoring social issues like abortion and gay marriage.”

Martinez has attributed her retail politics skills to being a Republican in a majority Democratic state, requiring her to make a case for conservative policies strong enough to overcome party bias.

But some New Mexico political observers contend that she has few legislative achievements to show for that skill, and that she is likely to be tested much more as her electoral honeymoon wears off. For instance, the driver’s license repeal push failed.

Martinez’s supporters disagree, arguing that the governor has been effective on legislation, pointing to the fact that in her first year she led an enactment of A through F grading in New Mexico public schools, a reform long sought after by conservatives. She also signed into law legislation to reduce red tape and even the playing field for businesses, and in March signed a budget that reduced spending and did not raise taxes.

“I think she’s been an effective leader in a symbolic aspect. But her legislative leadership has been pretty thin,” Monahan said. “I think she’s got a mixed record in that regard.”

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