Nasty primary nearly over in New Mexico district GOP wants to recapture

Other top races Tuesday are driven by Luján’s bid for Senate

New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is a top GOP target, but the Republican primary to pick her challenger has been bitter. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is a top GOP target, but the Republican primary to pick her challenger has been bitter. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 29, 2020 at 8:47am

Republicans hoping to take back the House this year see New Mexico’s 2nd District as one of their best pickup opportunities. But the winner of Tuesday’s primary will have to move past what has been a nasty and personal intraparty fight before she can focus on taking back the seat Democrat Xochitl Torres Small narrowly won two years ago.

In addition to the GOP rivalry between 2018 nominee Yvette Herrell and oil industry executive Claire Chase in the 2nd District, New Mexico’s primaries also feature a crowded Democratic contest for the 3rd District seat Rep. Ben Ray Luján is vacating to run for the Senate.

Luján is unopposed, but there’s a three-way battle for the Republican Senate nomination. And there’s a GOP primary to take on freshman Democrat Deb Haaland in the Albuquerque-based 1st District. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both races Solid Democratic.

With women in strong positions in all three of the state’s congressional districts, there’s a good chance Tuesday’s races will decide whether the state will send its first all-female delegation to the House.

Here are the races to watch:

Politics get personal 

Herrell and Chase began their campaigns competing over who was more loyal to President Donald Trump. But their attacks became increasingly personal after the conservative Breitbart News unearthed Facebook posts from 2015 in which Chase used an obscenity to describe Trump and said she would not vote for him. 

That could have been a real problem in the vast southern New Mexico district that voted for Trump by 10 points in 2016, New Mexico political blogger Joe Monahan said.

“I don’t think she had any choice but to try to do the damage control on that and try to turn it on her opponents,” he said. 

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The ensuing melee featured: Chase’s accusation that Trump would not have been impeached had Herrell not lost to Torres Small in 2018; an ad from Herrell depicting Chase as an anti-Trump valley girl; and allegations that Herrell was peddling rumors about Chase’s first marriage.

In a recent twist, the Democratic super PAC Patriot Majority and EMILY’s List have spent more than  $315,000 combined on ads in the 2nd District. And ad by Patriot Majority and a mailer by Women Vote!, the independent expenditure arm of EMILY’s List, could sound negative about both GOP candidates to a Democratic voter, and that’s how the groups reported the spending to the Federal Election Commission. But both attacked Herrell as a Trump loyalist, which could help her in the primary and may indicate Democrats see her as easier to beat. Torres Small did just that in 2018, winning by less than 2 points. 

Chase has led in fundraising and spending. She raised $1.3 million — $40,000 of which was self-funded — and had $200,000 on hand on May 13. Herrell raised $820,000 and had $70,000 in the bank. They were trailed by businessman and Army veteran Chris Mathys, who raised $293,000 — with $276,000 of that self-funded — and had $15,000 on hand. 

The race has also attracted a considerable amount of outside spending.

House Freedom Fund, the campaign arm of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, and the tea party-associated House Freedom Action have spent more than $437,000 to boost Herrell. Defending Main Street, which was founded to help establishment Republicans facing tea party challengers, has spent $100,000 to boost Chase. 

Inside Elections rates the general election Tilt Democratic. 

Star power vs. staying power

Most of the national attention on the open race for the 3rd District, which covers the northern half of the state, has been focused on Democrat Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer who was famously outed by a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

But Plame has struggled to pull ahead in a crowded and expensive Democratic race. Because the district is so blue — Hillary Clinton carried it by 15 points in 2016 — the winner of the primary is favored to be its next member of Congress.

Plame has the clear fundraising advantage, raising $2 million through May 13, with $321,000 on hand, and was able to go on the air early. Her announcement video, for example, showed off her spy skills behind the wheel of a Chevy Camaro, which she drove backward. 

But lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez has snagged coveted national endorsements, including from EMILY’s List and BOLD PAC, the fundraising arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. 

New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján's run for Senate has sparked a seven-person Democratic primary battle for his House seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“There are other Latinos and Latinas who have vied for that seat, but Teresa is from that community and she has been working in that community for over 30 years,” California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, the BOLD PAC chairman, told CQ Roll Call. 

Leger Fernandez took almost 42 percent of the delegates at the state nominating convention, an impressive showing in a seven-way race. A poll of likely Democratic primary voters conducted for EMILY’s List by Clarity Campaign Labs last week showed Leger Fernandez — who had $482,000 in the bank on May 13 after raising $1.3 million — leading Plame, 33 percent to 24 percent. They were the only candidates in double digits. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 points.

Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Democratic.   

Stormy weather

Luján, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is a rising star in the party and comes from a deeply entrenched New Mexico political family. So he’s in a good position to win the seat that Democratic Sen. Tom Udall is giving up after two terms. Luján succeeded Udall in the House in 2009 when Udall vacated the seat for his successful Senate run.

Three Republicans are competing to take on Luján. National Republicans have told CQ Roll Call they are excited about Mark Ronchetti, who has statewide name recognition after decades as a television weatherman. The Albuquerque Journal said in a May primary endorsement that Ronchetti was the only GOP candidate in the race capable of winning a statewide election. 

Gavin Clarkson, a college professor and former Interior Department official, has led in fundraising, with $1 million raised — $20,000 of which was self-funded — and $154,000 on hand as of May 13. Ronchetti raised $830,000 and had $430,000 in the bank. Anti-abortion activist Elisa Martinez, who raised $418,000 and had $40,000 on hand, finished first (with 241 votes to Ronchetti’s second-place 198) at the state GOP’s pre-primary convention in March, the Journal reported.