The Sleeper Race?

By Jim Ellis

Republican candidate Mark Ronchetti (left) and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-Nambe/Santa Fe)

Oct. 5, 2020 — It seems every election cycle features a surprise Senate contest. This year, that campaign may reside in New Mexico.

For months, it’s been a foregone conclusion that Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-Nambe/Santa Fe) would succeed retiring Sen. Tom Udall (D). Recent polling, however, suggests that Republican challenger Mark Ronchetti may have been discounted a bit too early.

The latest polling trends clearly show a narrowing margin. A new Public Opinion Strategies survey for the Ronchetti campaign (Sept. 26-28; 500 registered New Mexico voters; live interview) finds the upstart Republican climbing to within six percentage points of Rep. Lujan, 46-40 percent.

In June, Public Policy Polling (June 12-13; 740 New Mexico voters) projected Lujan holding a predictable 14-point lead, 48-34 percent. At the beginning of September, the Research & Polling firm tested the state (Aug. 26-Sept. 2; 1,123 likely New Mexico voters, live interview) and saw Lujan’s edge slipping a bit to 49-40 percent. In the middle of last month, POS tested the race two weeks before their aforementioned survey and found an almost identical result when compared to their current offering. The mid-September ballot test yielded a 45-39 percent split.

Mark Ronchetti is a former chief meteorologist for the Albuquerque CBS television affiliate in a media market that covers about two-thirds of the state, since it stretches northward to Santa Fe and beyond. Therefore, Ronchetti has significant name identification, though not in relation to politics.

Rep. Lujan won the state’s northern congressional district in 2008, succeeding Udall when he was first elected to the Senate. Prior to his congressional service, the six-term incumbent was a four-year member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

The congressman’s late father, Ben Lujan, was a Democratic state representative from Santa Fe for 37 years and rose to the speakership. He was first elected in 1974, becoming speaker in 2001, and served until his death in 2012. Ben Ray Lujan won the Democratic Senate nomination this year in unopposed fashion, highly unusual for a dominant party’s open Senate primary.

We’re now just days away from seeing the new campaign finance reports, but through June 30, Ronchetti had raised almost $1.4 million, and all from individuals. This pales in comparison to Rep. Lujan’s $6.3 million, but if Ronchetti can expand his financial base, he could become competitive in the final weeks since New Mexico is not an expensive state in which to campaign.

The Land of Enchantment has been a reliable place for Democrats in federal elections during this decade, but three of the past six governors have been Republicans as the two parties have alternated in winning the chief executive’s office since the 1986 election. Immediately before Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) won the governorship two years ago, Republican Susana Martinez was elected to consecutive terms. Though New Mexico currently features a united Democratic US House delegation, the GOP consistently controlled two of the state’s three CDs during the previous decade.

Independent expenditure outlays in this campaign to date have not been particularly high, but that could soon change. According to OpenSecrets.org, just over $813,000 independent dollars have been reported for the New Mexico Senate race. There has been $459,000 spent on Lujan’s behalf and $354,000 against the Democrat or for Ronchetti. With the polling trends we are now seeing, it is evident that more outside and independent political party money will come into this race.

In terms of the ad message, Rep. Lujan is taking Ronchetti seriously in that he is running contrast ads between he and his opponent. Lujan adopts the typical Democratic message track of emphasizing healthcare, though he also promotes a positive ad about expanding New Mexico economic opportunity. Ronchetti is on the airwaves, coming across with a pro-America message, calling for an end to violence in the cities, and professes support for President Trump.

The New Mexico campaign, originally viewed as a foregone conclusion, is now attracting attention. It appears the closing weeks here will be a bit more interesting than originally predicted.

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