ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — John McCain lost New Mexico by nearly 15 percentage points in 2008. Four years later, Mitt Romney pulled two top staffers from the ground here with weeks to go before Election Day — admitting defeat even before Barack Obama trounced him by 51 points in the Santa Fe area.
The Land of Enchantment has voted for a Republican presidential candidate only once since 1992. With a considerable nonwhite voter population and all-Democratic congressional delegation, it’s not exactly fertile ground for a surprise GOP victory.
But then, President Donald Trump has seldom shied away from a long-shot challenge.
Despite the Democratic Party’s statewide success here last November — winning two congressional seats up for grabs, defending a third and defeating Republican nominee Steve Pearce for the governor’s mansion — Trump and his aides are betting they can flip New Mexico next fall and expand his electoral playing field.
Their efforts begin Monday night with a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, which sits in a county Trump lost by 1,800 votes in 2016. The Hispanic-heavy city is four hours north of El Paso, Texas, where the president held a reelection rally in August that prompted campaign manager Brad Parscale to add New Mexico to his “watch list” — a list of nontraditional battleground states, including Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia, that the Trump campaign has its sights set on.
“I’ve continued to say the president’s policies are a win for Latino voters across America … and one of the first symbols of this was the El Paso rally,” Parscale told reporters on a call last week. “We saw in the data thousands of voters who did not vote for the president in 2016 show up to a rally, come listen to the president and register [to vote].”
“As we started doing polling there, we saw a dramatic increase from 2016 and I went over this with the president and he said, ‘Let’s go straight into Albuquerque,’” Parscale recalled.
Political forecasters and local officials remain puzzled by claims that Trump — with his restrictionist immigration policies, white-identity politics and below-average approval ratings — can woo enough voters to turn New Mexico in his favor.
“What we’ve seen of the president’s immigration policy has been cruel and inhumane. I think Democrats and New Mexicans, in general, are much more interested in making sure our communities feel welcome and safe,” said Miranda van Dijk, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of New Mexico, which is counterprogramming Trump’s rally with an event focused on “unity and diversity.”
“He’s a batshit racist,” adds Chris Luchini, a New Mexico native who sits atop the state’s Libertarian Party. “I’m very skeptical that New Mexico is up for grabs with him.”
The Libertarians of New Mexico earned major-party status in 2016 after Gary Johnson — the state’s former Republican governor, who became the Libertarian presidential nominee in the past two elections — carried nearly 10 percent of the statewide vote. Luchini contends that the party has become somewhat of a refuge for disaffected Democrats who are too conservative for the progressive politics of their state Legislature, but too appalled by Trump to reregister as Republicans.
Luchini said he often calls voters when they reregister as Libertarian to ask what prompted the change, “and what I get on the phone calls a lot are traditional conservative Democrats who can no longer stomach being called a Democrat, but are self-selected not to be Trump voters.”
The trend he describes is consistent with the Trump campaign’s attraction to New Mexico, though questions remain about whether the current political climate here is truly advantageous for the president. His net approval rating in the state has decreased by 34 percentage points since he took office, and recent matchup polls in bordering red Texas have shown him losing to the top three candidates in the Democratic presidential field.
But Trump campaign officials say the numbers they’re looking at paint a different picture of a state in which Hispanic Catholics and rural voters feel abandoned by progressive lawmakers who have pushed to codify reproductive rights, increase taxes and mandate the creation of gender-neutral restrooms in commercial buildings. Furthermore, they maintain that the president’s actions on immigration are attractive to a particular subset of Hispanic voters who support border security or have family members who entered the U.S. legally.
That is, only if Trump can ditch the harsh rhetoric he typically employs when discussing his immigration policies and preferences, says Pearce, the failed gubernatorial candidate, who has spoken to the campaign about the president’s language in his current capacity as chairman of New Mexico’s Republican Party.
“This is a lot about tone, and you’ve got to watch that,” Pearce said. “You don’t have to be cautious about saying you want to secure the border. You just have to say it with firmness and without anger.”
Republicans in New Mexico are also eyeing retiring Democrat Tom Udall’s Senate seat as a means to boost voter turnout and help the president in 2020. Two Republican candidates have already declared — in addition to “10 different people who are interested in running,” whom Pearce says he has spoken to — though neither is viewed as particularly competitive in what is seen as a relatively safe seat for Democrats.
Still, van Dijk says Democratic activists and state party officials are “not taking anything for granted” for this cycle and will focus heavily on defending Udall’s seat and appealing to voters from every corner of the state.
By Parscale’s telling, Trump — who hasn’t visited New Mexico since October 2016 — has long been eager to return. Campaign officials believe that Johnson attracted tens of thousands of would-be Trump voters during the president’s first White House bid. And if they can just win over those voters this cycle, it will bring Trump closer to having five more electoral votes in his pocket.
It wasn’t until mid-August, though, that Trump himself was convinced of the idea. The president has spent months polling his inner circle about the political landscape in New Mexico, according to two people familiar with those conversations, one of whom recalled his asking an aide whether coming here would be a waste of time.
“I started talking to them — saying they shouldn’t write off New Mexico — in January. They didn’t believe that in the least,” Pearce said.
He continued: “Eventually Brad began to watch it, and three to four months ago he said he wanted to come into New Mexico and do a little something with the party, and that morphed into Don Jr. coming with him, and then the president started wanting to come about the time of his New Hampshire rally” in August.
With an unprecedented war chest, the Trump campaign has ample cash to spend on watch-list states like New Mexico, where at least a half-dozen staffers are expected to be stationed before the end of the year. If Monday’s rally meets expectations, the president could turn the state into a regular stop on the campaign trail as 2020 draws near — particularly if his prospects begin to dim in key battleground states.
“He starts off with 164 electoral votes” automatically, a Republican official familiar with Trump’s strategy recently told POLITICO. “What I would tell you is, I feel like he’s going to win Texas, but I don’t know that we have opportunities in Colorado, Virginia [or] New Mexico.”
By GABBY ORR
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