Democrats Fear Base Closing

In New Mexico Rematch, Romero Struggles to Win Hispanic Votes

Posted September 22, 2004 at 6:11pm

If New Mexico state Sen. Richard Romero (D) hopes to close the gap in his rematch with Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), he will have to overcome a surprising problem: He drastically underperforms with a key base constituency.

A recent independent poll on the race gave Romero, President Pro Tem of the Senate, some cause for encouragement: He trailed Wilson by just 6 points, 49 percent to 43 percent.

But Romero’s support among Hispanics, who make up 43 percent of the district’s population, was an anemic 48 percent.

“The fact that 37 percent of the Hispanic vote is for Heather should be troubling to Romero,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., the Albuquerque polling firm that conducted the recent survey.

Even if the remaining 15 percent of undecided voters all break toward Romero, as Sanderoff thinks is likely, Romero will still only win the Hispanic vote 2-to-1. And that may not be enough to swing the district his way.

Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based political consultant and ad man who runs a Web site on New Mexico politics, predicts trouble for the Romero campaign. Polling under 50 percent of the Hispanic vote is “a problem, and it needs to be resolved for the campaign to turn in a win,” he said.

How did a Hispanic Democrat in one of the most Hispanic Congressional districts in the country find himself struggling to win the Hispanic vote?

Monahan points to a nasty fight Romero had with another Hispanic state Senator four years ago as the probable cause. Romero ousted Manny Aragon from his leadership position in the New Mexico Senate, assuming the post of President Pro Tem with the aid of all the Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Aragon has since retired from the Senate.

Romero then boasted about it in a television advertisement in his 2002 race against Wilson, “touting how he got rid of Manny Aragon” in an effort to appeal to moderates and conservatives who did not like the powerful state Senator, Monahan said.

One close observer of New Mexico politics thinks that this move hurt Romero’s campaign more than any other. Wilson beat Romero by 10 points, far and away her best showing since winning a close special election in early 1998.

“Those ads backfired because he did not pick up any Republican or independent votes. All he did was alienate supporters in Albuquerque,” the political observer said. “Aragon was a hero to many working class folks.”

Hispanic voters may also resent the way Romero acted in his attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for the 1st district this spring, Monahan said.

“A fellow by the name of Eli Chavez was in the primary,” he said. “Chavez was kicked off the ballot when Romero went to court challenging his place on the ballot … a lot of Chavez supporters did not look upon that kindly.”

Combined with the Aragon slight, some political pros feel that Romero has trouble connecting with Hispanic voters. While Romero is trying not to make the same mistakes during the general election that he made in the past, he has thus far not focused on energizing his base.

Rather, Romero is chasing after the group that many experts consider to be the swing vote in this district: conservative Democrats.

Despite his difficulties wooing the Hispanic vote, not all is lost for the challenger, analysts said.

“There are a lot of people registering [in the district] — over a thousand a day,” Sanderoff said.

Many of these people are being registered by liberal groups like America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, and the numbers reflect that. Only 34 percent of new registrations this cycle are Republicans, Sanderoff said, while 47 percent are Democrats.

Romero’s campaign is not worried about the polls.

“We do internal polling,” said Kena Hudson, Romero’s press secretary, “and it’s not a concern.”

While Hudson questioned the size of the sample in Sanderoff’s survey, the pollster stood by his numbers.

“Last time [in 2002] I was ‘off’ when I said 10 points and Heather won by 10,” he said.

The percentage of undecided voters might also be heartening to the Romero camp.

“Because he is lesser known, the undecideds have some hesitancy about [Wilson],” one observer posits. “They just don’t know very much about him, and they’ll break toward him. … I think Romero’s got the momentum.”

Monahan does not buy the argument that the undecided votes will really be able to help Romero, however.

“You’ve got to look at this historically,” he said. The district has never elected a Democrat to Congress since it was created in the 1960s.

“As close as the race looks, this thing has been a tough nut to crack for the Democrats,” Monahan said. “On paper it looks like a true swing district. I disagree with that characterization, however, because it has never swung for a Democrat.”

While publicly projecting confidence, Wilson’s camp is sufficiently concerned about the race and began running TV ads this week attacking Romero on a variety of fronts, accusing him of missing 1,300 roll call votes in the Legislature and taking taxpayer-funded junkets to Hawaii and Nevada.

Hudson called the accusations “a pack of lies.”