Editor’s Note: Saturday marked the one-month countdown to Election Day. So New Mexico In Depth’s Sandra Fish decided to travel to Deming and Silver City with University of Texas El Paso exchange student Jack Price of Darlington, North East England.
The two cities are each hosting key state House races, with incumbents retiring and political newcomers vying for the seats. These contests could be key to whether the House remains in Republican hands or goes back to Democratic control.
Fish and Price stopped in unannounced – or tried to – at political party offices in Luna and Grant counties to check out the activities. Here’s what they found.
It’s a little after 11 a.m. Saturday at the Luna County Republican headquarters in downtown Deming.
Inside, about 20 people are in a back room watching the movie “AmeriGeddon,” a movie about martial law and United Nations rule after terrorists take over the United States.
Stacks of yard signs stand in the front room, alongside a rack of campaign literature. A volunteer’s bicycle is propped against a board of Trump-Pence buttons.
The door opens and a man enters seeking yard signs.
“I’ll take one of everything,” he says, noting he’s especially interested in signs and buttons for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“They all want Trump stuff,” says Russ Howell, chairwoman of the Luna County Republicans. “He is the only person that has ever recognized what our problems are – immigration, of course, in southern New Mexico. And jobs, we’re the highest unemployed county in New Mexico. The unemployment rate is staggering.”
In fact, 10 percent of Luna County residents are unemployed, while the statewide jobless rate was 6.9 percent at the end of August, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. That‘s an improvement from the 13.4 percent rate in August 2015, but much of that improvement can be attributed to a decline in the county’s labor force.
With almost 25,000 residents, Luna County is about 45 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 20 percent unaffiliated, according to the most recent voter registration data from the New Mexico Secretary of State. Republicans have gained about 300 voters since January, while Democrats have lost nearly 200.
But the ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats aren’t so discernable, Howell says.
“The Democrats that are in Luna County were born and raised Democrats. They’re conservative,” she says. “Republicans are also conservative people. Some of us are more conservative than others of course.”
In one of the more competitive House races in the state, Democrat Candie Sweetser and Republican Vicki Chavez are vying to replace outgoing Democratic Rep. Dona Irwin in House District 32. Sweetser’s husband, John Sweetser, is also running for county commission – as a Republican.
Howell notes that the New Mexico Business Coalition gave both candidates an “A” grade in their ratings.
“No matter who wins, we win,” Howell says of the race. “They’re both very able conservatives.”
But there’s lingering resentment among Luna County Republicans about perceived meddling in the June primary between Chavez and J. Scott Chandler, who lost by 16 votes after a flurry of last-minute mailers sent by Advance New Mexico Now. Jay McCleskey, the adviser for Gov. Susana Martinez who also controls the GOP super PAC, told the Albuquerque Journal that Chandler wasn’t a viable candidate.
“That’s my hot button,” Howell says. “To actually attack one of our candidates because the governor doesn’t like him, or Jay McCleskey doesn’t like him or even (House Majority Leader) Nate Gentry doesn’t like him, is very, very unfair in my opinion. I got very angry about it.”
The resentment lingers, potentially harming Chavez’s efforts, as Keith Harris, first vice chairman of the county party, makes clear.
“As a party, we are supporting her,” Harris says. “What I do in the privacy of the voting booth is another matter.”
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Around the corner is the Luna County Democratic office.
Signs for Sweetser, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and others adorn the windows.
One flier highlights a raffle for a barbeque grill and TV, in contrast to the gun raffle sign at the GOP office.
But the office is closed on this Saturday morning.
A booth at the Luna County Fair displays literature and signs, and is staffed in the early afternoon. But we miss the Democrats while in Silver City.
Catching up by phone with Democratic county Chairwoman Mary Lou Cameron reveals a sentiment similar to Howell’s on the House District 32 race.
“We are fortunate that we have two strong candidates,” Cameron says. “Both have proven themselves to be leaders in our community.”
But she says the presidential race is turning Luna County residents off.
“There are many that are just disgusted with it,” she says. “There’s that whole group of persons who don’t want either one and have told me that they won’t mark the ballot for either one.”
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There’s a large sign along U.S. 180 between Deming and Silver City, reminding passersby of “Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Obamacare, Solyndra, Open Borders.” Sponsored by the Silver City Tea Party, it says, “Wake up America!” It’s one of the few political signs along the 50 miles between the two cities.
Just outside Silver City, a banner for the Grant County Republican Party headquarters hangs on the second floor of an office building next to a Chevron station. Signs for GOP candidates adorn the corner near the station.
But on this Saturday afternoon a month before the election, the doors are locked. A call to the phone number on the banner goes unanswered, as do subsequent calls to the number listed for county chairman Curtis Stevens Jr.
* * *
But in downtown Silver City, the Democratic County headquarters is open.
It’s about 1:30 and Grant County Democratic Chairwoman Frances Vasquez has just sent off 20 people to knock on doors and get out the vote.
“Weekends are our favorite days to go out and do the canvassing,” Vasquez says.
A large Mary Hotvedt for state House sign leans against a table layered with campaign literature. Two other volunteers are sorting campaign fliers and discussing strategy.
“We’re really encouraging early voting,” Vasquez says, noting that New Mexicans may begin voting Tuesday. “If we can get the Democrats to get out and vote, that’s going to help us to be victorious on Nov. 8.”
Vasquez recognizes Grant County’s importance for Democratic efforts to take back the state House, which the GOP won in 2014 for the first time in 60 years. Republicans now hold 37 seats, to Democrats’ 33.
“It only takes like a gain of three seats in the House to make the House Democratic instead of Republican,” Vasquez says. “Two of those House seats could be here. That’s very significant.”
In House District 38, Hotvedt, of Pinos Altos, faces Republican Rebecca Dow, of Truth or Consequences in Sierra County, to replace outgoing Rep. Dianne Hamilton, a Republican who lives in Silver City.
That difference in residence means a great deal to Grant County voters, Vasquez said.
“One lives in Grant County and one lives in Sierra County,” she says. “For many, many, many years, the representative of House District 38 lived in Grant County.”
Recently, Vasquez and her volunteers are hearing radio ads attacking Hotvedt, apparently paid for by GOAL WestPAC, a federal super PAC that gets involved in southern New Mexico.
Vasquez wants that seat to return to Grant County, as well.
With more than 29,000 residents, some 55 percent of Grant County voters are Democrats, compared with 25 percent Republicans and 16 percent unaffiliated, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Vasquez characterizes differences between the parties as difference in a desire for less government regulation – more from Democrats, less from Republicans.
The Gila River diversion is a big issue here, especially in contests for three open county commission seats.
Another significant issue in Grant County is the 2013 closing of behavioral health clinics for low-income people around the state. A year after Arizona-based La Frontera replaced the local Border Area Mental Health agency, La Frontera abandoned facilities in southern New Mexico, including Grant County.
“There were absolutely no services for such a large segment of the community, especially for the Spanish speaking, the monolingual Spanish speaking,” even when La Frontera was open, Vasquez says, describing the closings as “a big blow to our community.”
“I believe that suicides went up dramatically,” she says. “There was one holiday weekend when we had four suicides.”
In fact, the county’s suicide rate is twice that of the state as a whole.
Vasquez says Border Area Mental Health is trying to regain Medicaid certification, which she hopes will improve services.
As for the presidential race, Vasquez says, Grant County voters are “anxious about it.”
“Trump supporters are Trump supporters and Hillary supporters are Hillary supporters,” she says. “It’s very, very polarized.”