Crime opens political lane for GOP in Democratic New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republicans are funneling resources and determination into a law-and-order campaign for governor of New Mexico led by a local TV celebrity with a hard-line message about criminal justice — hoping to dislodge an incumbent Democrat who staunchly defends abortion access.

New Mexico is one of a handful of Democratic-dominated states from New York to Oregon where Republicans hope to win the top statewide office by elevating concerns about household hardships of inflation along with rising crime and shifting attitudes about public safety.

Former TV meteorologist and GOP nominee Mark Ronchetti has relentlessly hammered incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for fostering a “catch-and-release” environment in the criminal justice system as the state's largest city, Albuquerque, sees a record-setting spate of homicides.

He’s drawing support from a pack of ambitious GOP governors with little love for former President Donald Trump. Fundraising by Ronchetti’s campaign has surged amid visits from incumbent Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, termed-out Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and purple-state Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia.

On Monday, Trump posted a social media endorsement of Ronchetti, who has steered clear of Trump's false election-fraud claims that sparked the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and acknowledges that President Joe Biden won in 2020.

Biden is scheduled to visit New Mexico on Thursday to shore up Lujan Grisham's standing with voters in a state that Trump lost twice — and where Democrats hope to keep control of every statewide elected office, legislative majorities and the state Supreme Court.

Lujan Grisham has staked her reelection above all on abortion access as a cornerstone of women’s rights — touting her collaboration with Democratic legislators in overturning a dormant state abortion ban last year ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down Roe vs. Wade.

She later signed executive orders to ensure safe haven for local abortion doctors and visiting patients, while earmarking $10 million to help build an abortion and reproductive health clinic in Las Cruces.

If “women don’t have equal rights, you cannot have a democracy,” Lujan Grisham told news reporters last week. “It’s perilous.”

Biden’s trip to New Mexico comes on the heels of visits and endorsements by prominent Democrats, from a video feed by Barack Obama to a moderated discussion on reproductive rights in Albuquerque last week between Lujan Grisham and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Ronchetti spokesman Ryan Sabel said Monday that the Biden visit would remind voters of reckless policies that “have led to higher gas prices, open borders, and drugs and violent crime taking over our neighborhoods.”

Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist who directs the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, said Republicans have seized on the most visceral of political issues.

“Crime really affects people, and the economy is more important than crime,” she said. “As long as you can keep these issues in the minds of voters, the GOP has a winning strategy.”

Atkeson, a former professor at the University of New Mexico, said campaigning on abortion policy can activate voters across the political spectrum in a heavily Hispanic state with strong currents of Catholicism.

“We’ve got both right-to-life and pro-choice people on the other side. So it’s not the clear winning issue,” Atkeson said. “Abortion is in some ways an abstract issue for a lot of people that they’re not going to face tomorrow.”

The outcome of the governor’s race in New Mexico holds other national implications.

A Ronchetti win would put Republicans back in the driver’s seat on oilfield and climate regulations in the nation’s No. 2 state for petroleum production. And Ronchetti has pledged to deploy troops and police to the U.S.-Mexico border, aligning enforcement with Republican-led initiatives in Texas and Arizona.

The winner also will oversee a windfall in state government income linked to oil production, in a state with persistently high rates of childhood poverty and low-marks for public school performance.

Lujan Grisham has urged voters to stay the course on increased public investments in education, health care and policing.

She recently signed cuts on sales taxes and social security benefits. Ronchetti says he would go farther, including a permanent annual rebate tied to oilfield income for every individual in the state of 2.1 million residents.

Republicans have spent heavily on turning the election into a referendum on crime and punishment.

The Republican Governors Association has invested in TV ads that provide a frightening narrative around the release of a convicted felon who went on to slay his estranged girlfriend last year.

Patty Lane, manager of a gallery of shops in Truth or Consequences, said Ronchetti’s approach to crime, border security and the economy resonate in her community, and that she still resents aggressive pandemic health restrictions from Lujan Grisham that limited access to businesses while drawing down prison populations.

“Her handling of COVID, letting prisoners out that shouldn’t be let out. … Ronchetti, he just seems more level-headed,” Lane said.

Ronchetti, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2020, said he’ll appoint hard-nosed judges and has pledged to back police officers by restoring local immunity from prosecution to policing agencies, while railing against the state’s pretrial release system. A voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2016 reduced the role of money-bail and made it harder to deny release while defendants await trial.

New Mexico has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors since the early 1980s. An incumbent governor last lost reelection in 1994.

The Democratic Party also seized on abortion access as a galvanizing issue in 2020 to oust several of the party’s own incumbent state senators who had balked at overturning the state abortion ban — clearing the way for 2021 legislation to preserve access.

Since then, New Mexico has taken on an outsized roll in providing access to abortion for residents of neighboring states. Operators of the Mississippi clinic at the center of the court battle that overturned Roe v. Wade have opened a clinic in southern New Mexico.

Ronchetti supports a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with limited exceptions, while advocating for a statewide referendum on whether to impose new restrictions.

At the University of New Mexico, 19-year-old student Taylor Rittman said she was unlikely to support candidates who want to restrict access to abortion.

“It opens up the opportunity for the government to continue to take away freedoms” from women, Rittman said.

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