The big question in the aftermath of the Oct. 6 Albuquerque municipal elections is whether the GOP mayoral and city council wins are a precursor to the Nov. 2, 2010 statewide elections.
While there are certainly some lessons that are relevant to statewide matchups, there are also significant differences.
Mayor Chávez did an outstanding job of securing organizational support, lining up national Dems and recruiting and sustaining a strong volunteer base. He used the power of incumbency effectively on everything from press conferences to new projects.
Richard Romero energized progressives and a week out was in an arguably stronger position than similarly situated Eric Griego had been in 2005. The Brian Sanderoff poll nine days before the election had Romero 2 points below Griego’s final number of 26 percent, with 19 percent undecided— and most undecideds usually break against the incumbent.
But Mayor Chávez made a strong case that he was the more electable of the two Dems, with assists from well-respected progressive voices like Barb Wold at Democracy for New Mexico and national figures like Howard Dean and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The structure of Albuquerque’s elections, with no primary, played a big role in the Dems’ division on Election Day. Albuquerque may be a Dem-leaning town, but it’s not so overwhelmingly Democratic that Dems can survive having no primary, a fractured Democratic Party and a unified Republican Party.
Pointing out the structure of the municipal elections takes nothing away from Mayor-elect Berry. He ran a strong race, unified his party, and is likable enough to be a viable alternative for independents and Dems suffering from Marty fatigue or otherwise looking for change.
Lesson No. 1: cornered elephants unite
The biggest lesson of the 2009 mayoral race is that the Republican Party is more poised for unity this election cycle than any since 1998.
In 2005, with control of the House, Senate and White House, it was hard for Republicans to feel threatened by Dems, at least on a national level. By 2009, with the GOP out of power everywhere, the discussion for conservatives can focus on their shared disdain for progressive politics and policies. That’s a unifying force, and it hurt Mayor Chávez’s ability to draw moderate Republicans at the same level he’d done previously.
While Republicans alone didn’t carry Berry to victory, GOP unity, not seen in a long time in Albuquerque, was critical to his nearly 44 percent showing.
The right stuff
In my decade of doing political work, Berry and Gary King stand out for being gracious winners. Those of us who work in Santa Fe during legislative sessions aren’t surprised.
Mayor-elect Berry’s win was also largely a vindication of his style. He seems genuinely willing to listen to others, reach across the aisle and tell you up front where there’s the possibility of agreement and where there’s not.
As is obvious from the detailed account on this site of the McCleskey’s approach to the race, Berry ran a professional campaign with well-developed messaging and targeting. Good candidate, good campaign, good results.
Lesson No. 2: take public financing
Another significant political lesson to be derived from the 2009 Albuquerque elections comes from city council district 5: Take public financing. That means getting in the race early enough to qualify for public financing and committing to it.
Not only did Dan Lewis smartly do that and acquire a significant financial advantage, but Councilor Cadigan’s failure to do so allowed mega-developer SunCal to jump into the race with a large independent expenditure.
One of the signature features of the Albuquerque finance law that makes it effective in limiting special interest influence is that anyone receiving public financing gets matching funds when an outside group comes in supporting another candidate.
With Cadigan playing outside the public financing structure, SunCal’s deep bench of talented political professionals were able to unload on him without triggering any matching funds.
While the GOP is rightly proud of its municipal victories, it’s unclear how much it means statewide.
Unlike the Albuquerque Dem divisions, at the state level Dems seem solidly unified behind Lt. Governor Diane Denish. Also unlike Albuquerque, there will be a dogfight to be the Republican standard-bearer.
While the 2009 race indicates that Republicans will be more unified than in 2005 or 2006, it’s not likely that the GOP will be as unified statewide as they were in Albuquerque.
Denish is from Hobbs, has worked hard on rural issues, understands and supports business, and may benefit from a GOP primary in which the social conservatives once again battle it out with the business wing of the party.
As for the second Albuquerque lesson of public financing, even basic campaign finance limits — weaker than Albuquerque’s public financing — won’t apply statewide until after the 2010 elections. Denish has a strong fundraising lead, likely lack of a primary and, to-date, Republican fundraising has been poor (fractured four ways, no less, and largely self-financed by GOP candidates).
That means the financial advantage that helped Republicans take the city council will probably work the other way in the fight for the governor’s mansion.
Will Nov. 2 look like Oct. 6? Maybe, maybe not, but it should be an interesting year.
Bundy is the political and legislative director for AFSCME in New Mexico. The opinions in his column are personal and do not necessarily reflect any official AFSCME position. You can learn more about him by clicking here. Contact him at email@example.com.