It’s been nearly 16 years since a Republican presidential candidate has won New Mexico. And in last year’s midterm elections, the GOP suffered losses across the board, including all statewide races.
Put those facts together, and President Donald Trump’s chances of winning the state next year may not look good.
Yet the Trump reelection campaign and the New Mexico GOP are optimistic, saying the president’s backers will dedicate significant resources to try to turn New Mexico red in 2020.
“Trump Victory is leaving nothing on the table in 2020, and New Mexico is definitely a focus as part of that strategy,” said Samantha Zager, regional communications director for the campaign in Western states. “New Mexico voters can expect to see our army of volunteers recruiting, registering and contacting individuals to share their support for President Trump and Republicans up and down the ticket.”
Among early indications the Trump campaign is eyeing the state: Campaign manager Brad Parscale said in April he thought New Mexico was “in play in 2020.” On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence visited Artesia to give a speech on trade. And next month, New Mexico could get visits from Parscale and a member of the Trump family, according to state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce.
“I think he’s definitely in the chase for New Mexico,” Pearce said of the president this week. “Things are beginning to just occur that usually are indicators that they’re going to consider New Mexico seriously.”
The Trump campaign is telling state party leaders it plans to spend “a lot” of money, train local volunteers and have “far deeper organization” at the neighborhood level than Republicans have had in the state in recent presidential elections, Pearce said.
The last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George W. Bush in 2004, a narrow victory of 48.9 percent to John Kerry’s 48.1 percent.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 48.3 percent of the vote in New Mexico, while Trump won 40 percent and Gary Johnson won 9.3 percent.
Pearce said the Republican federal tax overhaul has given some New Mexicans more spending power, which he said could boost support for Trump in 2020.
He also said there’s been a backlash against the legislative agenda pushed earlier this year by state Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham .
“The progressive part of the party took over this session and did pretty radical stuff,” Pearce said of the 2019 New Mexico Legislature. “Those were things that just were much further than the population expected them to go when they elected them to office.”
Lujan Grisham’s disapproval rating did increase in the second quarter of the year, making her the sixth most unpopular governor in the country, according to a survey released in July by research firm Morning Consult.
Pollsters have said the governor’s higher disapproval rating could be due to her support for hot-button issues such as gun control and abortion, which were strongly opposed by conservatives during the legislative session.
The state’s Democratic Party, meanwhile, is incredulous about Trump’s chances in New Mexico.
“I think that’s wishful thinking,” state party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said when asked about a potential backlash against recent legislation. “We had eight years of stagnation under Susana Martinez, and I guess the Republicans are longing for more stagnation? I’m certainly not and am excited about the changes that are being made.”
Elliston said New Mexicans are happy about legislation passed this year, such as raises in teachers’ pay and in the minimum wage.
She also said state residents react negatively to what she called Trump’s “cruel immigration policy” and rhetoric of “dangerous divisiveness.”
“Donald Trump will not win New Mexico in 2020,” Elliston said. “Democrats all over New Mexico are energized and engaged.”
Lonna Atkeson, director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy, said she found it difficult to see how Trump could win the state, and she wondered what polling data his campaign might be looking at.
“I don’t see how we’re a possible flip,” Atkeson said. “They’re obviously looking at data I don’t have. Or else they’re living in a pipe dream.”
Trump’s campaign said it could not provide any polling data for New Mexico.
In 2018, Democrats increased their majority in the state Legislature, won the governorship and took hold of all the state’s U.S. House and Senate seats.
Pearce, a former Southern New Mexico congressman who was defeated by Lujan Grisham in the 2018 governor’s race, said the GOP doesn’t believe the broad Democratic wins last year will affect Trump’s ability to prevail in 2020. Republicans aim to win over those who voted for Johnson in 2016 as well as pro-gun and pro-life Democrats, he said.
“There’s a truism in politics that when you’re down you’re never as down as you think you are,” Pearce said, “and when you’re up you’re never as up as you think you are.”