This should have been a terrific, hard-fought election campaign in which New Mexico’s 3rd District would send a woman to Congress for the first time.
It will still be hard-fought, and women are still the front-runners. But now the campaign is likely to be anticlimactic instead of terrific.
One candidate stands the best chance of gaining in this strange, distressing climate of business closures, rising unemployment and reduced focus on the campaign.
Valerie Plame, who did poorly at the Democratic pre-primary convention this month, is the best-known candidate in a campaign that the coronavirus will push to the inside pages.
Plame has downplayed her dismal fifth-place finish at the convention by calling attention to what she considers a better barometer of success.
“A poll of likely Democratic primary voters in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District shows Valerie with a double-digit lead,” her staff wrote in an email seeking campaign contributions. “… This surge in support confirms that Valerie’s message is resonating across the district.”
The poll Plame’s solicitation referred to isn’t fresh. Her campaign hired the firm of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, which surveyed 500 likely voters from Feb. 11-16.
It showed 21 percent supporting Plame. Lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez had 11 percent. Santa Fe-area District Attorney Marco Serna was third with 7 percent.
Plame’s campaign manager, Alex Koren, released an abbreviated summary of the poll. No mention was made of the other four Democratic candidates or how many voters were undecided.
But Plame’s camp disclosed a section of the poll showing she was the best-known candidate at 46 percent, and that she had the top rating for favorability at 34 percent.
Serna’s favorability rating was 23 percent and Leger Fernadez’s was 21 percent.
The strangest detail in all of this was not the numbers but Plame’s timing in highlighting them. She waited until after she bombed at the convention.
“It became clear to us that The New Mexican was stepping up its coverage of the race, and so it made sense to release the results at that time since your paper is the paper of record for a significant portion of our district,” Koren said.
In fact, by the time Plame stressed the poll results, the attention of New Mexico and the world was on the spreading coronavirus, not the primary election.
Had Plame released the poll results before the convention, she might have bolstered her claim that the event brought forth a small, unscientific sampling of voters.
Plame received only 5 percent of the convention delegates. The threshold to automatically make the ballot for the primary election was 20 percent.
Only Leger Fernandez and Laura Montoya, the Sandoval County treasurer, secured enough delegates to qualify for the ballot. Leger Fernandez ran away from the field with 42 percent. Montoya reached the requisite 20 percent.
This left Plame and the other also-rans with the option of submitting petition signatures from registered Democrats to get on the ballot.
The 400 or so convention delegates were but a sliver of the voters in the 3rd District, which covers all or part of 16 counties in the northern half of the state.
Still, Plame’s poor numbers at the convention left the impression she was weak and Leger Fernandez might be unstoppable.
If I take anything away from the poll, it’s that the coronavirus pandemic will make it impossible for any candidate to match Plame in name recognition.
She is the only nationally recognized figure in the race, something that will not change in a campaign season where a disease gets most of the headlines.
Plame had been a CIA agent for 20 years when her cover was destroyed by someone friendly to President George W. Bush’s administration.
Plame’s then-husband, the late diplomat Joe Wilson, in 2003 highlighted in the New York Times a faulty intelligence report that Bush had used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
An operative leaked Plame’s name and clandestine job to conservative columnist Robert Novak. He printed it.
This killed Plame’s career in the CIA. But the political retribution aimed at Plame also made her a recognizable figure, something that will count more this spring than in most campaigns.
Elections too often consist of biographical ads followed by attack ads. This one, which had so much promise, might follow that script.
The novel coronavirus, an indiscriminate wrecker of Americana, also could reshape the election in the 3rd District. It might end up being a horse race after all.