Democrats avoided a potentially embarrassing upset in New Mexico on Tuesday with state Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s victory over Republican state Sen. Mark Moores in the special election for the Albuquerque-area 1st District.
Stansbury, 42, a former science educator and onetime Senate aide who called for increased federal spending for infrastructure and sponsored state laws to curb hunger and improve water management, was leading Moores by about 30 percentage points when The Associated Press called the race at 8:04 p.m. Mountain time. The final margin was more than 24 points.
She succeeds former Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland, who won reelection last fall but resigned in March to become Interior secretary.
Stansbury’s victory comes after weeks of warnings from high-profile Democrats that the GOP could take advantage of low turnout during the off-cycle election to flip the left-leaning district and chip away at the Democrats’ already razor-thin House majority.
Democratic strategists privately said those appeals exaggerated the risk, which was further amplified by the media’s portrayal of the contest as an early test of both parties’ strategies heading into 2022. The New Mexico election was the first congressional race since all the Democratic candidates were shut out of the runoff in last month’s special election in Texas’ 6th District, a Republican-leaning district that Democrats saw as trending their way.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison called Tuesday’s result a positive sign for President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“This victory should serve as a cautionary tale to Republicans across the country,” he said in a statement. “Standing in the way of delivering for the American people is not what voters are looking for.”
There were plenty of signs that Democrats took the New Mexico threat seriously. Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, traveled to the district last week to campaign with Stansbury — his first trip to appear with a candidate. Biden also endorsed Stansbury in the campaign’s final week.
House Democratic leaders, labor unions and special interest groups flooded Stansbury’s campaign with more than $1.4 million in donations through May 12, dwarfing the $595,000 raised by Moores — which included $200,000 from his own pocket.
Emhoff alluded to Democrats’ narrow House majority at a rally Thursday.
“It’s crunch time,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “Don’t look at the polls. Don’t look at anything. Act like we’re down. There’s a sense of urgency, right?”
Cole Leiter, who served as communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2020 cycle, said the strategy made sense, given the uncertainty of special elections. He pointed out that there were also two third-party candidates on the ballot who could have siphoned votes from Stansbury.
“You lose special elections when you take your eye off the ball, and Democrats are smart to have paid attention early, not to have scrambled late,” Leiter said.
State’s only urban seat
The 1st District, which is New Mexico’s only urban seat, backed Biden over Donald Trump by 23 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rated the special election Solid Democratic. The last time a Republican running for any office carried the district was Gov. Susana Martinez’s 2014 reelection bid, according to Inside Elections.
The seat’s Democratic lean was widely considered to be a factor when Biden selected Haaland as his Interior secretary.
Moores, the owner of a medical diagnostic testing business, played up a spate of violent crime in Albuquerque and attempted to tie Stansbury to progressives in Washington who have called for resources to be diverted from police departments.
Stansbury emphasized her background in the sciences and her record in the state House of championing legislation to address water shortages and other environmental issues in the state.
“Much of the West is experiencing extreme drought, and the impacts of climate change are really affecting our water systems. So we need smart solutions. We need investments in our infrastructure,” she told National Public Radio affiliate KUNM in Albuquerque.
Stansbury also supported a range of center-left and progressive issues, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a far-reaching approach to federal infrastructure investment that covered housing, education and health care, and criminal justice changes such as ending the immunity police officers have from many lawsuits.
Worked at Natural Resources panel
Stansbury worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration before becoming an aide on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee under Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell. She worked on the senator’s signature bill to improve drought resiliency and water management in the Yakima River Basin in Washington state.
She returned to New Mexico in 2017 to work as a consultant to nonprofit, philanthropic and research organizations on natural resources, science and community issues. In 2018, she defeated a seven-term Republican incumbent to become the first woman to represent her legislative district.
As a state lawmaker, Stansbury spearheaded legislation to incorporate key data into water management. Her bill, dubbed the Water Data Act, passed both chambers favorably and was enacted in 2019.
She also worked to address hunger and income insecurity in the state, co-sponsoring legislation enacted in 2020 to end copayments for subsidized school lunches. State data shows nearly 1 in 4 children in New Mexico live in homes without consistent access to adequate food, and the percentage of households dealing with food insecurity is consistently higher than the national rate.
“Taking away that copay opened up the opportunity for thousands of kids across the state to get free lunches,” she told the Albuquerque Journal. “That’s another thing that I’m really, really proud of.”
In Congress, Stansbury says, she will push for legislation to expand food and income support programs to address systemic hunger.