ALBUQUERQUE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham breezed past former TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti on Tuesday to win a second term in office.
The Democrat won reelection with about 51 percent of the vote in the three-way race for governor, according to unofficial early returns.
“If it seemed like we were taking a minute or two or ten, it’s because I was backstage checking the weather,” Lujan Grisham, who was wearing a pink dress and blazer, quipped after taking the stage before a packed room at the Clyde Hotel downtown just after 10 p.m.
“Talking about the weather isn’t my speciality … but does anyone want to hear tomorrow’s forecast?” she asked the crowd, which started chanting “four more years!”
“You didn’t even let me give the forecast, so here we go: The forecast for New Mexico is four more years,” said Lujan Grisham, for “potentially marginalized populations and women.”
Flanked by her husband and two adult daughters, as well as her brother and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, Lujan Grisham thanked the crowd of about 450 for their support, saying they were part of something bigger.
“We have defeated in New Mexico a political movement that is fueled by anger and division, that is propped up by conspiracy theories, false attacks and lies,” she said. “Tonight, New Mexico said ‘no’ to a political crusade that wants to turn women into second-class citizens. Tonight, New Mexicans said ‘no’ to the kind of politics and government where politicians and rioters can overturn elections, ban books and strip our basic constitutional rights away from any group they don’t like.”
The election results capped off a contentious campaign between Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman who touted her experience and commitment to protecting abortion rights, and Ronchetti, who presented himself as an agent of change for a state ranked at the bottom in education and near the top in violent crime.
Ronchetti also associated Lujan Grisham with inflation and assailed her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying her public health orders, some of the strictest in the nation, resulted in learning loss among students and the permanent closure of thousands of small businesses.
While Ronchetti cast the governor as a career politician who failed to listen to everyday New Mexicans and address kitchen table issues, Lujan Grisham highlighted her accomplishments in her first term, from expanding taxpayer-funded tuition at in-state universities and colleges to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
But abortion was a cornerstone of her campaign.
Lujan Grisham, who last year signed the repeal of a decades-old law that criminalized abortion in New Mexico, warned a woman’s right to choose was at stake in the midterm election.
The strategy, part of an effort to court the female vote, was adopted by other Democrats across the country after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, eliminating the federal constitutional right to abortion and leaving the decision up to states.
During a 10-minute interview with KSWV radio Tuesday morning, Lujan Grisham continued to spotlight the issue, referencing a vote the night before by the Hobbs City Commission to ban abortion within its borders to make her point.
“That is exactly what a Mark Ronchetti New Mexico would like like,” she said.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Ronchetti said he was still “pro-life” but would seek a “middle ground” if elected governor that included a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is at risk.
Ronchetti’s true intentions, however, were thrown into doubt by the pastor of an Albuquerque megachurch who told his congregation Ronchetti had a different plan. The pastor, Steve Smothermon, said Ronchetti told him privately his more moderate stance was part of a ploy to get elected and that his end goal was to end abortion in New Mexico. The pastor’s highly publicized remarks dealt Ronchetti’s campaign a blow and fed into the notion of being a flip-flopper.
Asked about Ronchetti’s proposal to put the abortion question before voters, Lujan Grisham responded, “Well, now we see what happens when you put it up for a vote. Women have a choice today, and he wants some other voters to take that choice away.”
The odds were in Lujan Grisham’s favor. Not only is New Mexico a reliably blue state with Democrats making up nearly half of the electorate, but the last three governors of New Mexico — Gary Johnson, Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez — all won reelection with comfortable margins.
Lujan Grisham fought off a barrage of attacks that in the final weeks of the campaign targeting her settlement of a sexual misconduct complaint lodged by James Hallinan, a former campaign staffer.
Hallinan, her spokesman during her first campaign for governor, alleged Lujan Grisham grabbed his crotch in 2018 during a senior staff meeting when he criticized campaign ads the team was previewing. The case was settled for $150,000, plus attorneys’ fees. Lujan Grisham vehemently denied the allegations and said she settled “to avoid the continuing distraction and significant expense of possible litigation” and concentrate on the pandemic.
The governor’s race will go down as one of the most expensive in state history.
Both candidates raised hefty sums of money — $12.5 million by Lujan Grisham and nearly $9.3 million by Ronchetti as of the last campaign finance reporting period — and had the financial backing of the Democratic and Republican governors associations. Other independent expenditure groups funneled large amounts of money into the race, too.
The race generated national attention, with three Republican governors traveling to New Mexico to campaign for Ronchetti and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris flying into the state, too, to stump for Lujan Grisham.