The recent Albuquerque and Las Cruces municipal elections, along with other races nationwide, could signal a warning for Republicans in the 2018 elections.
The pendulum looks to be swinging from Republican gains during the Barack Obama years to Democratic gains in response to Donald Trump, according to Brian Sanderoff, the president of the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc.
“I think the political mood right now benefits Democrats,” he said. “And I think part of that is due to the fact that a Republican is in the White House, has lower approval ratings and all the dynamics that go with that.”
In New Mexico, 2018 will be an important election year with the governor’s race, a U.S. Senate seat, three U.S. congressional districts and a number of other statewide positions up for grabs.
Locally, Tim Keller’s comprehensive victory in Albuquerque for mayor, the flipping of a previously Republican-held Albuquerque city council seat and the progressive sweep of the Las Cruces city council show how national shifts are reflected in New Mexico politics.
“That’s American politics, du jour, that it goes back and forth,” University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said. “Things get too liberal, then we elect a conservative, things get to conservative and we elect a liberal.”
She said the current enthusiasm could lead to gains for Democrats in 2018.
“Democrats are going to be mobilized to vote because of the national rhetoric, including those who are least likely in normal politics to turn out to vote in an off-year,” she said.
Sanderoff agreed enthusiasm played a huge role in the recent elections, and pointed to the early vote totals in Albuquerque, which heavily favored Keller over his opponent, Republican Dan Lewis. Beyond enthusiasm, Keller was a good candidate, he said.
“Usually when [the] early vote is as strong as it was in the case of Keller, it’s a combination of having a candidate some people really believe in and having a good organization,” Sanderoff said. “You can have the best organization in the world, but if you don’t have an inspiring candidate, it’s not going to mean a darn thing.”
“He was just able to build a really great ground game that was mobilizing,” Atkeson said of Keller. She also praised former Democratic Party of New Mexico chairman Brian Colón, who came in third in the first round of voting and did not advance to the run-off election the following month, for throwing his support behind Keller. She said Colón helped “in a big way” unite the Democratic vote.
The Democratic gains in November played out in more than just New Mexico. A week before Albuquerque voters elected Keller, Virginia elections resulted in Democrats easily retaining the governorship and making massive gains in the state House of Delegates. Republicans held a 66-34 advantage in the chamber before the elections, but control of the chamber now rests on three races deemed too-close to call.
And in New Jersey, Democrats expanded their advantage in both the state House and Senate, while capturing the governorship.
The types of districts where Democrats fared well in Virginia could show where battleground districts will be in New Mexico in 2018.
“It appears that Donald Trump hasn’t lost much support in rural areas,” Sanderoff said. “And so Donald Trump does really well in rural areas and Democrats do really well in urban areas. What happened in Virginia was that in the suburbs the Democrats made gains.”
Albuquerque’s City Council District 5, which voters flipped from Republican to Democratic earlier this month, is one such suburban area, on Albuquerque’s Westside.