ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Five Republican candidates are competing in Tuesday's primary for governor in New Mexico to take on Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham, running for her second term in a state where Democrats hold every statewide elected office.
Lujan Grisham was the state's secretary of health, then served three terms in the U.S. House before being elected governor. She led the state through the pandemic with some of the strictest public health mandates in the country.
Most of the candidates in the crowded GOP primary field built campaigns criticizing Lujan Grisham for her pandemic response — expressing outrage about closures and citing negative impacts to the state's small businesses. One contender, GOP County Commissioner Jay Block, refers to the state's shutdown orders as "unconstitutional" on his campaign website, though the state Supreme Court upheld the administration's authority to institute them.
Lujan Grisham is also campaigning on her handling of COVID — including the state's lengthy indoor mask mandate that was lifted in February, well after most other states. She's also holding up New Mexico's effective vaccine rollout that's led to more than 90% of adults in the state getting at least one shot. And as a counter to the economic messaging of the state's GOP, she's touting relief packages for individuals and businesses as having protected the health of the state economy.
GOP candidate and former TV meteorologist Mark Ronchetti has a sizable lead over his competition for the nomination, thanks in part to his name recognition, according to a recent Albuquerque Journal poll. He was both a longtime local television personality and a 2020 U.S. Senate candidate. He lost that race to Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján but fared well with nearly 46% of the vote. He's also leading the Republican pack in fundraising, according to campaign finance reports from the secretary of state's office, though he's raised less than half of what Gov. Lujan Grisham has for the primary contest.
Of likely Republican primary voters polled, 45% said they planned to vote for Ronchetti, who's running as a political outsider. Three-term state Rep. Rebecca Dow has the next highest pull at 17%.
Dow hails from southern New Mexico and serves as the chair of the state's House Republican caucus. She has a background in business and early childhood education.
Trailing in the five-way race are retired Brig. Gen. and former Guantanamo Bay commander Greg Zanetti, County Commissioner Jay Block, and abortion rights opponent and former Mayor Ethel Maharg.
As the country's Republican candidates are calculating their proximity to Trump, Dow described herself in a recent debate on local news station KOAT as "a lifelong conservative who's never disrespected President Donald Trump." She's worked to position Ronchetti as unsupportive of the former president, blasting him in a campaign ad as a "Never Trumper" and criticizing a comment he made in 2019 that he "used to be a Republican until the orange one," referring to Trump, at a University of New Mexico climate change event. Ronchetti has defended the comment as a joke made to college students and his campaign says he remains a registered Republican.
Dow has also flashed her political experience. But during the campaign, Ronchetti has pushed back on Dow for her voting record in the state Legislature, highlighting her approval of state pandemic relief aid, which received bipartisan support. The legislation rolled in funds for those who didn't receive a federal stimulus check, including undocumented people.He says on his campaign website that the policy encourages illegal immigration, and he will do away with it if elected.
All five GOP candidates for governor campaigned on increasing security on the U.S.-Mexico border. Calling it "job No. 1" in a May debate, Dow pledged to advocate that Trump's border wall be completed. She, Ronchetti and Block have all vowed to redeploy the National Guard to the border if elected. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pulled most Guard troops back from the border in 2019, refuting the idea that the area was in crisis. They had been ordered there the year before by former Republican Gov. Susanna Martinez in response to a call from Trump.
Amid record homicides in Albuquerque — the state's largest city — gubernatorial candidates on both sides of the aisle are pitching tough-on-crime initiatives. While Ronchetti is calling for expanding recruitment and pay for officers and tougher laws to keep people behind bars, so has Lujan Grisham. She increased funding for police departments and oversaw 16% raises for state police officers. She named crime as one of her priorities in the 2022 legislative session, though a bill she pushed for that would have kept more people behind bars pending trial failed.
On gun policy, candidates fall more along partisan lines. Lujan Grisham has signed several gun regulations into law, including a "red flag law" that allows the temporary removal of guns from those who pose a danger to themselves or others, increasing background check requirements and limiting gun access for those under domestic violence restraining orders. Four out of the five Republican contenders for governor have an A grade from the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund for opposing gun regulation, though Dow is the only candidate with a voting record on the issue.