NM-1: A Pattern?

By Jim Ellis

Albuquerque, New Mexico-anchored NM-1 Congressional District

June 4, 2021 — Several media reports — typified by an MSNBC website analysis article that Steve Benen authored after Tuesday’s New Mexico special election — are trying to make the point that Melanie Stansbury’s landslide victory is a potential benchmark for future Democratic victories. Such a conclusion is a stretch.

The two-pronged premise is that Stansbury was so strong that she even ran ahead of President Biden’s performance in the district, and that the Republican campaign’s emphasis on the crime problem and the national effort to defund the police proved a political failure.

While Stansbury, a two-term state representative, scored a 60-36 percent win in the Albuquerque anchored congressional district that former Rep. Deb Haaland (D) resigned to become US Interior Secretary, her performance is not unusual. In fact, her vote total was less than two points above the mean average Democratic congressional percentage since the party converted the seat from the Republicans back in 2008.

To the argument that Stansbury’s victory margin was larger than President Biden’s 60-37 percent spread against then-President Trump, and it was only one percentage point better, it is not unusual for a House campaign to outperform the top of the ticket. In most instances, the congressional winner is better known than his or her competitor, has greater funding and outside support, and is consistently in position to overwhelm the opposition. Such is rarely the case in a national presidential campaign or in a major statewide contest for senator or governor.

The crime issue was certainly a focal point of Republican nominee Mark Moores, an Albuquerque state senator. The national party, however, did very little to support Moores, virtually conceding the race from the outset based upon the voting history here for more than a decade.

For an underdog candidate in Moores position, emphasizing the crime issue, on paper, made sense as a point of attack. Albuquerque, according to FBI statistics has the ninth worst violent crime statistics in the country, meaning 1,352 crimes per 100,000 residents according to the latest available figures (2019). To put this number in perspective, Chicago, which has drawn much national media attention for its high murder rate, ranks 31st on the same scale, at 943 crimes per 100,000 city residents.

Perhaps one reason the crime issue did not propel the Moores candidacy is there was no serious effort to defund the Albuquerque Police Department, nor is there the sharp racial tension that is present in some of the cities where we saw serious problems along with a local movement to reorder policing.

Additionally, NM-1 is a below average congressional district in terms of individual wealth, ranking 320th of the 435 seats in per capita income according to the latest available statistics (2019). The seat ranks just over $8,000 below the national income average for congressional districts.

Therefore, it is reasonable to surmise that the district has been a strong recipient of the federal government’s COVID-related reimbursement programs. This would likely lead to a more favorable impression of government services from the Democratic base that was motivated to participate in this special election.

Overall, the special election turnout was 28.2% of the 1st District’s 465,956 voter registration universe. In the 2020 general election, the congressional participation rate was 69 percent. Therefore, with a 40-plus percent drop-off in turnout from the last general election to the current special, it is difficult to derive any pattern that could be detected as a precursor to what may unfold in the 2022 general election.

If one is looking for a more significant pattern from the four special congressional elections that have so far been conducted, it is arguable that the TX-6 jungle primary vote on May 1 could be the more salient example. In a north Texas district that is undeniably moving into the competitive realm from what was once a safe Republican seat, the leading Democratic candidate in a field of 23 competitors even while some analysts in both parties were conceding that she could finish first, Jana Lynne Sanchez failed to even qualify for the runoff.

Keeping in mind that media analysts were predicting Democratic US House gains of between five and 20 seats even on election night itself only to see the party lose a net 13 seats, tells us how difficult it is to read election patterns and forecast a future, or even a present, result.

What we do know from the NM-1 special result is that the Democrats, with a larger voting base, were more successful in motivating their party loyalists to participate. Beyond that, speculation pertaining to more significant conclusions should largely be disregarded.

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