New Mexico may be dubbed the Land of Enchantment, but for current residents, the reality on the ground is far from magical. Unemployment, while lower than national average, is 8.3 percent. State-government officials have been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. And in education, the situation is dismal: Math and reading scores lag significantly behind the national averages, while the state has the third-worst high-school-graduation rate in the nation.
Enter Susana Martinez, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Martinez, who has been a prosecutor for over two decades, is working to convince New Mexico voters that she’s the right person to make the difficult decisions the state faces. So far, voters appear convinced: The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Martinez with a nine-point lead over Democrat Diane Denish.
“They see in her . . . the combination of the right characteristics that make her believable as an outsider, a reformer, as someone who can make the tough choices,” says Republican state senator Rod Adair. He adds that Martinez has a “Chris Christie kind of dynamic going for her,” a reference to New Jersey’s Republican governor, who has garnered acclaim for his budget-slashing reforms.
Martinez certainly has plenty of ideas about how to solve New Mexico’s problems. “The first thing we have to do is balance the budget,” she says. New Mexico is facing a $260 million budget shortfall next year; to close the gap, Martinez wants to cut spending and prohibit growth in all state agencies. At the same time, she wants to put people back to work by decreasing small-business taxes. “We’ve just got to get away from that heavy tax burden New Mexicans are experiencing,” she remarks.
Martinez is also determined to battle corruption. “We are one of the most corrupt states in the nation, and everything is impacted by that corruption, from the overspending to the deficit we’re experiencing,” she says, adding that the corruption has created an “unpredictable environment” for business. Martinez plans to tackle it “head on,” advocating measures that would mandate the prosecution of corrupt elected officials, require prison sentences for those convicted, and ban administration staffers from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving government work.
She’s also thought about education extensively, notes Harvey Yates, chairman of New Mexico’s Republican party. “She has been very attentive to success in some other states, such as Florida, which have comparatively done so much better than New Mexico, even though they have similar [demographics],” he says.
If elected, Martinez’s biggest challenge may be to win over Democrats. New Mexico’s senate and house have been controlled by Democrats since 1933, with the exception of one two-year period in the ’50s, and this election isn’t expected to change that. In order to push through her reform plans, Martinez will need some crossover votes.
“I really think the legislators are going to start to pull together,” Martinez says. “They’re hungry to start doing the right thing and resolve the deficit.” She adds that “voters are holding them accountable” and that legislators who don’t participate in finding solutions “are going to get replaced.”
“I think you’ll have a more circumspect Democrat majority in the legislature if Susana Martinez wins this, and wins it convincingly,” agrees Adair. “I don’t think they’re going to say, ‘Okay, we can just obstruct.’”
Martinez, who has won four elections for district attorney in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one, is well situated to appeal across the aisle. Currently, she’s supported by 27 percent of Democrats, according to a mid-October SurveyUSA poll. And as a former Democrat herself — she switched parties in 1995 after a conversation with friends convinced her that her views aligned more closely with those of the GOP — Martinez knows how to communicate her positions. She says she’s “opened up . . . a dialogue,” and that her state’s Democrats are more willing to vote Republican than they have been in the past.
But don’t expect New Mexico to become the next Tea Party stronghold. Martinez’s strong lead over Denish is almost certainly due in part to New Mexico voters’ disgust with outgoing governor Bill Richardson, who has a disapproval rating of 62 percent. Denish, who served as the state’s lieutenant governor during the eight years Richardson was in office, has struggled to distance herself from the administration. Richardson’s unpopularity stems partly from a year-long federal investigation into whether he had participated in a pay-to-play scheme. Although federal authorities ultimately decided not to file charges, the issue has tainted him in voters’ minds. And while Yates thinks there’s “something of a revolt among the more socially conservative folks in the Democrat party against control by the progressives,” that could signify a future with a more right-leaning Democratic party rather than a Republican resurgence.
None of this has made Martinez adopt left-leaning positions. On her site, she is frank about her pro-life views, support for smaller government and reduced taxes, and interest in promoting border security, including through repealing a law that grants illegal immigrants driver licenses. Instead, she’s relying on her ability to sell conservative ideas by focusing on how they can solve societal problems.
Talking about Martinez’s views on immigration, Yates remarks, “She’s a no-nonsense lady.” If she can maintain that approach and achieve the reforms the state badly needs, New Mexico just might be on its way to revival.
— Katrina Trinko writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.