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SANTA FE (AP) — After a summer of bruising television ads in New Mexico’s race for governor, Democrat Gary King remains optimistic he can close the gap in an uphill challenge against Republican incumbent Susana Martinez.
The two-term attorney general trailed Martinez by 9 percentage points in a recent poll and lags far behind in fundraising. But King is undaunted.
“We weathered a million dollars’ worth of negative ads, and we’re still within striking range in the polls,” King said in an interview.
Martinez and the Republican Governors Association unloaded on King with a barrage of TV ads within days after he won the Democratic nomination in June.
Now the general election is rapidly approaching, with absentee voting to start in a little over a month on Oct. 7.
Martinez leads the race with 50 percent of likely voters backing her, according to a poll commissioned by the Albuquerque Journal. King was favored by 41 percent and 9 percent were undecided in the mid-August survey.
Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff, whose firm conducted the poll, said King faces a difficult task.
“When the front runner is already at 50 percent, you need to get the lion’s share of the undecided plus take away some votes from the front-runner. That’s Gary King’s challenge,” said Sanderoff. “That takes money. That’s going to take some hard-hitting ads that hit the nail on the head and resonate with New Mexicans why they should vote for Gary King and not for Susana Martinez.”
To that end, King has launched an aired an ad focusing on some of the dominant themes of his campaign — improving schools by scrapping Martinez administration policies and expanding early childhood education to start reversing New Mexico’s dismal national ranking in child well-being.
On the campaign trail, King also stresses the need to revitalize the economy, which until recently has been losing jobs.
Martinez continues to pound away at King, including his vote for a hefty budget-balancing tax increase package when he was a legislator, and she touts her administration’s accomplishments. The governor points to a higher graduation rate as a sign of school improvement. She says business tax cuts approved during her tenure will help boost the economy.
“We’re bringing businesses down to Santa Teresa. We have a business park that is busting at the seams. We have a lot of really good things happening, but that’s because we’re not growing government,” Martinez said in a recent interview. “If you have a large government, you will have a small economy. If you have a small government that meets the needs of the people, you will have a thriving and healthy economy because we’re not constantly dipping into the taxpayers’ pocket to maintain the government.”
Private sector jobs grew 0.8 percent in the 12 months ending in July, according to the latest state labor report. However, government employment fell 0.4 percent over the year — with most of the losses at the federal and local levels. New Mexico depends heavily on federal spending and the economy has suffered because of national government cutbacks.
Another challenge for King is fundraising.
The Martinez campaign had cash-on-hand of $4.3 million, according to a July financial disclosure, while King reported a balance of $116,000.
King has relied on personal money to fuel his campaign, pumping almost $541,000 into the race through the end of June — accounting for more than two-fifths of his total receipts.
King maintains he’ll have enough money to be competitive with Martinez but said, “I don’t think that I have to spend dollar for dollar with the governor.”
According to the Journal poll, Martinez is backed by a fifth of Democrats, 36 percent of Hispanics and more than half of independents. King’s task is to stop the erosion among those voters.
“It’s a serious horse race. We’re rounding the curve. We’re getting to the stretch,” said King. “I am where I always thought I should and could be by this point in time. If you’re the challenger it’s always your job to catch up and the important day to catch up on is Election Day.”