For Scott Chandler, the campaign trail might also be the comeback trail.
Chandler, a Republican who operated a ranch for troubled kids, battled a governor from his own party in some of the state’s ugliest confrontations about child welfare.
Chandler and his wife, Colette, received $750,000 to settle a lawsuit they brought against the state Department of Public Safety for a raid on their ranch. Then-Gov. Susana Martinez challenged Chandler’s methods and defended the raid.
Then Martinez’s political adviser created ads that helped defeat Chandler in a nasty 2016 Republican primary for a legislative seat.
After all that, Chandler has become one of the state Republican Party’s best hopes to unseat a Democrat in the Nov. 3 election.
He is challenging state Rep. Candie Sweetser in District 32, which stretches across three counties in southwestern New Mexico.
“It’s a super tight race,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
Egolf figures prominently in Chandler’s campaign ads. Chandler criticizes Sweetser for taking money from Egolf’s political action committee, even though she opposes him on many policy questions.
State records show Sweetser this year has received about $5,900 from the New Mexico House Democratic Campaign Committee. That accounted for 42 percent of her contributions.
Sweetser, who says she always votes her conscience, has sided with Republicans on several high-profile bills.
For example, she voted against repealing a 1969 anti-abortion law, and she opposed using a portion of the state’s largest endowment to expand early childhood education.
Chandler said he sees hypocrisy in Sweetser’s actions.
“She wants to run against the Democratic platform, but then she takes money from the Democratic leadership,” he said in a phone interview.
Just as important, Chandler said, Sweetser has voted for Egolf to be House speaker.
Of course, the speaker is almost always elected on a party-line vote. A member who breaks ranks is sure to be punished and ostracized.
Former Rep. Andy Nuñez, D-Hatch, once voted “present” instead of supporting the late Democratic House Speaker Ben Luján. Luján responded by stripping Nuñez of a committee chairmanship.
Sweetser and Chandler both took a pledge of no negative campaigning. Egolf wonders if Chandler has broken his promise with his criticisms of Sweetser.
“I don’t think what I’ve said is negative at all,” Chandler said. “I made mention of my main issue. I’m running against the progressive agenda in Santa Fe.”
Egolf said President Donald Trump is performing well in Sweetser’s district, a plus for Chandler.
But Sweetser has shown crossover appeal. Even Chandler acknowledges her votes are in step with her district.
Beyond that, Sweetser’s husband, John, is a Republican who’s running for reelection as a Luna County commissioner. His presence on the ballot might help Sweetser with Republicans, or at least Egolf hopes that’s the case.
Democrats hold a 46-24 advantage in the House of Representatives. Without a turnabout, Chandler figures Egolf, 44, could be speaker for many more years.
Even if Chandler completes a memorable comeback to win a House seat, Egolf might lose nothing overall.
Egolf sees possibilities for Democrats to gain at least two House seats from Republicans.
Democratic newcomer Randal Brown of Santa Rosa is challenging first-term Republican Rep. Martin Zamora.
Zamora, of Clovis, represents District 63, which covers parts of five counties. He ousted a Democrat in a close race two years ago, the only Republican pickup in the House.
A Republican incumbent is vacating House District 22, covering parts of Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties.
Democrats have again nominated Jessica Velasquez. She lost the seat by 140 votes of more than 16,000 cast in 2018.
This time, Velasquez is running against Republican Stefani Lord, founder of Pro-Gun Women.
Chandler is rooting for every Republican, saying a GOP coalition is the only chance to depose Egolf.
Chandler calls Egolf “the most anti-gun, pro-abortion, extreme environmental, pro-regulation speaker we have ever had.”
Egolf seems bemused by Chandler’s attacks.
“It’s like the people who are constantly talking about Nancy Pelosi on the national level,” Egolf said.
Chandler will know soon enough if his strategy is sound. He’s trying to defeat Sweetser by running against Egolf.
If it works, Chandler will have completed a strange trip — from Republican pariah to Republican lawmaker.