Why the GOP Just Got Blown Out in a Congressional Race

New Mexico, a once-purple state, is turning increasingly blue.

Part of the GOP’s decline can be attributed to

urban-rural polarization

, a process set in motion before Donald Trump’s ascent. “The fact is that CD-1 in particular has basically turned into an urban district, and like we see nationally, it’s gotten bluer and bluer,” said Lonna Rae Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and a frequent commentator on local politics.

It wasn’t so long ago that centrist Republican Heather Wilson represented the first district for ten years, despite Democratic victories at the presidential level in 2000 and 2004. New Mexico Republicans remain divided on whether or not the first district is winnable for their party in today’s environment, but for many, the yawning margin last week speaks volumes about the GOP’s overall strength in the state.

“The party had every incentive to try to make it reasonably close,” said Rod Adair, a Republican consultant and demographer who represented a southeast New Mexico state senate seat from 1997 to 2013. “The striking thing about the results is that you would expect, in a special election, for the party opposite the White House to get a little bit of a bump,” he added. “It was actually worse.”

Moores, one of only two Republicans left representing Albuquerque voters in either chamber of the state legislature, even lost his own state senate district by 3.5 points, according to the special election’s

unofficial results

.

“Nobody’s surprised that Melanie won. I think everybody was somewhat shocked at the margin,” said Darren White, a former sheriff of Bernalillo County and the 2008 GOP nominee for the district.

But the problems run deeper than one congressional district. The state party is now caught in a catch-22, beholden to a right-wing, Trumpist base, while struggling to regain the votes of more moderate, suburban voters, like the ones who used to buoy Republicans across the first district.

“I liked Trump’s policies, but his rhetoric is toxic, and it hurt people, and I think that Mark got the backlash from that,” said Lisa Torraco, a Republican former state senator who represented a suburban, northeast Albuquerque district adjacent to Moores’ before losing re-election in 2016. “And the state party hasn’t done anything to try to heal that.”


Moores was not expected to win

the special election, but his chances were even slimmer given the current status of the New Mexico Republican Party, which has tied itself to former President Trump. On the campaign trail, Moores struggled to reconcile the contradictions of running in a moderate, Democratic-leaning district while still trying to energize the party’s hard-right base.

First elected to the state senate in 2012, Moores is difficult to categorize within the wider Republican Party. While

one conservative group

ranks him as the second-most conservative legislator in the state, Moores is also known for working with Democrats on issues like election reform and marijuana legalization. And far from the Covid-downplaying impulses of other members of his party, Moores and his wife are partners in Pathology Consultants of New Mexico, a medical diagnostics company that conducted virus testing as part of the state’s pandemic response.

Mark Moores at the GOP headquarters in Albuquerque on June 1, the day of the special election. | Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

At a

debate

in early May, Moores hedged when asked whether he held Trump responsible for the January 6 Capitol riot. “I think everyone deserves, including us, fault for that riot,” said Moores, clarifying that he meant “us as a nation.” Pressed further by the debate moderator, Moores said, “There’s no question the rhetoric has been out of control for many of us, including the President—the past President—including Ms. Stansbury, including a lot of other folks.” He later affirmed that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election.

Ultimately, Moores campaigned heavily on crime, seeking to paint Stansbury as a “radical extremist” while highlighting her support of the BREATHE Act, a little-known, activist-written legislative proposal that advocates divesting federal resources from traditional policing in favor of different approaches to public safety. Stansbury, a state representative who unseated a 7-term Republican incumbent in 2018 and whose congressional campaign focused more on the environment and the economy than on criminal justice reform, responded to Moores’ main line of attack by running TV ads touting her support for and from law enforcement.

Atkeson said that emphasizing crime was not necessarily a wrong-headed approach for Moores. “I do think that’s the long-term right message for the Republican Party, but I don’t think he got anything out of it. I don’t think he was able to connect to voters at that level.” Moores did not respond to requests for comment for this article.


In the end, according to interviews

with local politicians and political observers, the die was likely cast long before last Tuesday, due not to the politics or personality of Moores but rather to that of the state party boss Steve Pearce.

Pearce was elected party chair in December 2018, following a 14-point loss to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in that year’s gubernatorial election. A former seven-term House member long associated with the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus, Pearce hails from the state’s oil-rich southeastern region known as “Little Texas,” far from the political power centers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and is something of an avatar of the party’s Trumpian brand of politics.

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