Karen Bedonie? “Never heard of her.”
Greg Zanetti? “Nope. Never heard of him.”
Tim Walsh? “Nope. Never heard of him.”
Rebecca Dow? “Nope. Never heard of her.”
Jay Block? “Great guy.”
OK, so maybe the source is a little biased. But what else would you expect Block, a Sandoval County commissioner with a mischievous sense of humor, to say about himself and his Republican competitors who are seeking the GOP nomination for governor of New Mexico in next year’s election?
Still, Block raises a legitimate point, even if not about himself: Who are these relatively unknown GOP dreamers, and do any have a real shot at beating Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham?
Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, thinks they do.
“We have a strong field of Republican candidates, and I have no doubt that our eventual nominee will defeat Michelle Lujan Grisham next fall,” Pearce said in a statement.
A formidable candidate
Not everyone is so sure.
Lujan Grisham has a clear advantage. In fact, she trounced Pearce when they ran against each other for governor in 2018.
A former state health secretary who later served as a Bernalillo County commissioner and then as a congresswoman, Lujan Grisham is a Democrat in a reliably blue state. The nation’s first Democratic Latina governor, Lujan Grisham has name recognition not just in New Mexico but on the national stage. She also has years of political and government experience and a big fundraising head start with $134,000 already in the bank.
Jessica Velasquez, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said the choice for voters is clear. She said each of the contenders who so far have announced their intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor would be bad for the state.
“Considering [the Republican Party of New Mexico’s] track record of extremism, it’s unsurprising that the current Republican candidates for governor support a far-right agenda that would be devastating for New Mexico,” she said in a statement.
“This slate of candidates is woefully out of touch with New Mexicans on issues ranging from health care to gun safety to cannabis legalization,” Velasquez added.
All five Republican hopefuls acknowledge, in varying degrees, it won’t be an easy win.
But each one contends he or she has what it takes to prevent Lujan Grisham from securing a second term.
And while the last three incumbent governors — Gary Johnson, who was a Republican at the time, Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Susana Martinez — all won reelection with comfortable margins, Johnson and Martinez also showed that lesser-known candidates can be elected governor.
“I always like to think that anything can happen in politics, and the state has often put in Republican governors,” University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said.
But Republicans will face an “uphill battle” competing against an incumbent, said Atkeson, who noted a recent poll showed Lujan Grisham’s approval rating at 50 percent.
Lujan Grisham has “a lot of resources behind her and a lot of name recognition, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, so you never know what’s going to happen if inflation gets out of control, if students don’t go back to school or if there are other things that are, you know, crises that we’re not even ready to know about yet,” Atkeson said. “So, does somebody have a chance? Well yeah, I think that someone does.”
Whether anyone else will jump into the mix remains unknown.
The Ronchetti factor
“Everyone’s sort of been talking about Ronchetti,” Atkeson said, referring to Mark Ronchetti, a television weatherman who launched a close but unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate against Ben Ray Luján last year. “I guess that could be an October surprise or something.”
Atkeson said Ronchetti has statewide name recognition and performed “really, really unexpectedly well against” Luján.
Ronchetti, who returned to TV after losing the Senate race, did not return a message seeking comment.
In an interview in June, Pearce said he had talked to Ronchetti about the governor’s race “some time back.” Pearce would only say they discussed “what [Ronchetti] was thinking about.”
“I don’t talk about the personal conversation we had because that’s someone’s right to make their own decision, whether or not they’re going to do it,” Pearce said last month.
At the time, Pearce said “name ID,” which Ronchetti possesses, was critical in a statewide race. While name recognition can be bought, Pearce said, it’s expensive.
“That’s what it takes, so before somebody even gets in, they have to contemplate, ‘How much name ID do I have and what’s the value? If I don’t, what do I got to do in addition to running a race?’ ” Pearce said back then. “These are the discussions that we’re having internally with the activists in the party right now.”
Each of the five Republicans who have set their sights on winning the primary said they plan to run on-the-ground grassroots campaigns to boost their profiles with voters. But campaign contributions will be just as important. All but Bedonie said they will need to raise millions of dollars to compete against Lujan Grisham.
Meet the hopefuls
Zanetti, 63, an investment adviser and West Point graduate, said he may not be well known in Northern and Southern New Mexico but has solid name recognition in the state’s largest metropolitan area.
“In Bernalillo County, I have a lot of name ID,” he said. “I’ve been on the radio here [providing financial advice] for 30 years. I was on KOB-TV for a decade doing morning business reports. Granted, it was morning news. But I’ve been so involved in Bernalillo County, which is, of course, a pretty key county if Republicans are going to win this thing.”
Zanetti, a two-time chairman of the Bernalillo County GOP, grew up in Albuquerque and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1980. After six years of active duty, Zanetti earned his master’s degree in business from Boston University and then returned to New Mexico to work as a financial adviser, though he said he moved to Seattle for a short time to manage assets for Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Zanetti also was in the New Mexico Army National Guard, where he oversaw multiple commands. In 2005, he was deployed as a brigadier general to a task force that oversees the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay at the southeastern end of Cuba.
“I have an awful lot of experience with sprawling bureaucracies,” he said. “No other candidate can say that.”
Zanetti also touts his financial experience, saying his “whole life” has been about managing money.
“No one in this race understands business and finance and money the way I do,” he said. “If you don’t understand money, how can you expect to manage the finances of the state?”
Dow, 48, who grew up in Truth or Consequences and is serving her third term in the state House of Representatives, is the most recent Republican to throw her name into the ring. Though she said she wants to set a tone of hope and opportunity, she called Lujan Grisham a “power hungry career politician.”
“As a mother and as a community member and now as a House member, I see clearly that the barriers to New Mexico’s success are bad government,” she said. “That’s the barrier. It’s bad government.”
Dow, a businesswoman and consultant to for-profit and community-based early childhood providers, serves as the GOP’s House caucus chairwoman and is seen by some in the party as having potential to win a statewide race.
“My extensive [experience] begins first with nonprofit and for-profit work that is regulated by over a dozen agencies in the state, so I’m very familiar with the regulatory environment for businesses and for community-based organizations,” she said, adding her time in the Legislature and being “currently connected” to state government would also prove invaluable.
“I think I’m uniquely qualified at this time to respond to the needs of the everyday New Mexican, what’s happened with their businesses, with their children’s education and how to help them reach their hopes and dreams,” she said. “I’ve done it in my local community. I’ve been working to do that in my district, and we can bring it to a statewide level.”
Walsh, 74, is a retired teacher who worked as an education adviser to Johnson, the former governor. During his tenure in the Johnson administration, he said, he learned the “systems of government and how it works and how it doesn’t work” and also how “some elitists and special interests get way too much privilege.”
“One thing I want to accomplish as the candidate here is to start the dialogue and aim it at changing how the system works [in state government.] No more wasteful spending. No more bad policies,” he said. “If elected as governor, I think I could beat Gary Johnson’s veto system. He vetoed [more than 700 bills] in eight years. My goal in the first four years is at least 300.”
Walsh, who lives in Albuquerque, also said he would work to get rid of the Rail Runner Express commuter train, the state’s film incentive program and its ties to Spaceport America — ideas that would be difficult to execute with Democrats in control of both chambers in the Legislature.
“I’ve seen a lot of people get elected I never thought should have got elected, so my chances are as good as anybody’s,” he said.
Over the last 2½ years, Walsh has served as founder and president of Trident Tuition Funds, which he said is a nonprofit charitable organization that provides scholarships to dependents of Navy SEALs. Walsh is also an ultramarathon runner who said he will apply his running experience in his campaign.
“There are a lot of people that go out fast … but when you get down to the nitty gritty, it’s that person that just keeps grinding that gets it done, and I’m a grinder,” he said. “I’ve been a grinder all my life.”
Block, 50, retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Air Force in 2016 after working for more than two decades as a nuclear weapons officer.
“I was the guy with the nuclear codes,” he said, adding he was also a commander on foreign soil twice and volunteered for a combat tour in Afghanistan.
Block, who now works as a nuclear weapons consultant, is serving his second term as a Sandoval County commissioner representing Corrales and southeastern Rio Rancho.
“I’m the first Republican to win that seat,” he said. “I have appealed to folks who are not Republican by being elected twice as a conservative in a Democratic district.”
While he may not be well known across the state, Block said his campaigning has been receiving a lot of attention and that the election will be a referendum on Lujan Grisham.
“We’ve had people that weren’t known commodities before with Gary Johnson and Susana Martinez, and the state was ready for change, and the state is more than ready for change now after seeing how corrupt this governor is,” he said. “There’s a lot of moderate, conservative Democrats out there who are just disgusted by the governor and her abysmal performance.”
Bedonie, a business owner who lives in the community of Navajo in McKinley County, agreed. She said she and her husband lost two businesses, a casket-making company and a flower shop, during the coronavirus pandemic, which she blamed on Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Bedonie, a former congressional candidate and mother of eight, said she’s the most qualified because she’s “absolutely clean,” meaning she’s never served as a politician before. Bedonie, a Second Amendment advocate who is Navajo, said being Indigenous also makes her the best suited to lead New Mexico.
“I am the most qualified because I am the beating heart of New Mexico,” she said.
Bedonie said she’s been a Republican since childhood — “Ronald Reagan was my doorway to understand what politics was” — but that she’s not beholden to the Republican Party of New Mexico.
“They will not back me because they can’t control me,” she said, adding she’s gone “toe-to-toe” in the past with Pearce, the party chairman.
“I’m going to fight my party to save it,” she said.
Bedonie also said she’s ready to take on Lujan Grisham.
“I am a long shot. I am the underdog. I am the horse that hasn’t proven herself yet,” said Bedonie, 46. “But if you put me in a debate with her one-on-one when I make it to the [November 2022 general election], I will completely smash her. Every policy I have studied, and I have lived through her policies. She cannot shop it and candy coat it.”
While Lujan Grisham has served as a state Cabinet secretary, county commissioner, congresswoman and now governor, Bedonie said those are just titles on paper and that she feels compelled to mount a challenge.
“I always say, ‘This is not what I wanted to do. It’s not what I set out to do,’ ” she said.
“But if the Republican Party could come up with a candidate that could inspire me so that I can have some comfort and some reassurance, then I will go home in a heartbeat,” Bedonie added.
“But because I’m still in this race, it means you’re falling short on every candidate that you’re producing. Therefore, I’m in the race, and I will fight you to save you.”