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Roll Call

Susana Martinez Has Conservative Cred, High Approval Ratings

Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

Susana Martinez possesses enormous political skill. But will she answer the call?

New Mexico’s Republican governor became the first woman to hold that office after winning in 2010 on a conservative platform to overhaul Santa Fe. The charismatic former district attorney won a state in which Republicans are outnumbered 3-to-1, and she managed to close her first year in office with approval ratings topping 50 percent despite constant battling with the Democratic Legislature.

That’s one reason she already tops speculative vice presidential short lists, and why voters will almost certainly see her play a prominent role as the 2012 campaign plays out in her swing state this fall.

The eventual Republican presidential nominee is likely to come calling for some additional reasons: Martinez is female and Hispanic, and she could be an effective surrogate as the GOP tries to oust President Barack Obama by targeting those key demographics. The governor has been making the case for conservatism even though her state is composed mainly of Democrats and independents, who make up 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of the New Mexico electorate.

Martinez advisers said in a recent interview that the governor would avail herself to the GOP nominee. But it remains unclear how much of her political capital she is willing to spend to help Republicans win New Mexico and to help the party make inroads with Latino and female voters in battlegrounds where they could be decisive, including Colorado, Florida and Nevada. President George W. Bush won New Mexico in 2004; Obama won the state in 2008.

“She is going to focus foremost on those who elected her,” a Martinez aide said. “But it goes without saying that she’ll work to help elect the party’s nominee.”

Martinez will not endorse in the Republican primary and categorically rules out accepting a bid to join the GOP ticket. Her aides say she won’t change her mind.

She has kept a low profile in the primary contest compared to some of her Republican colleagues — Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and has eschewed the media spotlight. Republican Govs. Jan Brewer in Arizona and John Kasich of Ohio are regular fixtures on the Fox News Channel, for example.

But Martinez has not ignored national Republican politics completely. She serves on the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association and is a member of the board of advisers for the Future Majority Project, a subsidiary of the Republican State Leadership Committee charged with recruiting more Hispanics and women to run for office.

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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