Not so long ago, Yvette Herrell was a once-beaten challenger fighting for her political life.
Prospects seemed better for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who looked like a sure bet to be reelected.
Their fortunes haven’t exactly reversed since last fall. But Herrell, now the Republican congresswoman representing Southern New Mexico, is stronger politically than Democrat Lujan Grisham.
Five Republicans are running for governor. No one is challenging Herrell, even though a congresswoman who flipped a seat from Democrat to Republican ought to be wearing a target as she makes her first try for reelection.
In the governor’s race, the Republican candidates are strangers to most of New Mexico’s electorate. They can’t touch Lujan Grisham in name recognition, but they’re in the race because they see flaws in the governor’s conduct and weaknesses in her job performance.
Lujan Grisham settled a harassment lawsuit brought by a former campaign aide, saying she wanted to keep her attention on curbing the coronavirus pandemic. And her decisions on lockdowns during the pandemic might have dented her popularity since the 2018 election, when she won the open seat for governor by 100,000 votes.
Based on recent history, Lujan Grisham remains the favorite. No sitting governor of New Mexico has lost a reelection campaign since Democrat Bruce King in 1994.
Gary Johnson, a Republican who was new to politics, unseated King. Johnson then won another term.
Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Susana Martinez also got two terms, each winning reelection with ease.
The state was purple when Johnson and Martinez took the governor’s office. Lujan Grisham should benefit from the blue wave that has made vote-rich Albuquerque less friendly to Republicans.
Still, the fact that Lujan Grisham is drawing plenty of opposition while Herrell has none means two things: Republicans have a faint hope of winning the governor’s office, and Democrats aren’t the least bit serious about competing in the 2nd Congressional District.
The oddity is Herrell has done all she could to energize Democrats, starting with her first week in office in January.
She objected to certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election on the same day that rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The lawbreakers repeated then-President Donald Trump’s spurious claims about election fraud.
Herrell later created another avenue of attack for Democrats. She voted against establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the riot.
Her decisions should have inspired Democrats to recruit a name candidate. Instead, Herrell might be right in her calculation that vouching for Trump will scare away rivals in the right-leaning 2nd District.
Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms. As soon as one election is over, they’re campaigning again.
Herrell, of Alamogordo, is on that political treadmill. She had $361,000 in her 2022 campaign account for the reporting period that ended in March, and she will rake in much more.
At some point, one or more Democrats will have to enter the congressional race. A major party can’t let a controversial freshman lawmaker run unopposed.
But the Democrats appear committed to nothing more than a halfhearted effort. They don’t have many prospects in the southern part of the state, and the three who might have threatened Herrell aren’t running.
Former Democratic Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small of Las Cruces defeated Herrell in 2018 but lost their rematch last year by a wide margin. Biden has nominated Torres Small for a job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning she won’t have a third campaign against Herrell.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales of Silver City decided to run for reelection instead gambling his political future in a congressional district where Trump and Herrell were strong last year.
State Sen. Joe Cervantes, a practical Democrat and well-known attorney from Las Cruces, might have been the toughest match-up for Herrell. Cervantes, though, told me he wouldn’t seek the congressional seat. That leaves Herrell with clear sailing to a second term.
She was close to being finished politically after she lost to Torres Small in 2018. With thousands of votes still to be counted, Herrell foolishly gave a victory speech.
Torres Small ended up winning by a decisive 3,700 votes. Herrell, humiliated by her premature declaration of victory, then claimed the election had been stolen. As for proof, she had none.
Herrell made a comeback by grabbing Trump’s coattails. She still hasn’t let go as she sits in what’s become one of the state’s safest seats.