What a difference a year makes

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — One year ago, in June 2009, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was sitting in the catbird seat. She had announced for governor more than two years earlier and had already raised more than $2 million.

A poll had just been published by Harstad Strategic Research of Boulder, Colo., showing Denish leading both Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson by identical 57-35 margins.

   Pearce and Wilson were both well known to voters statewide, better known than Denish, in fact. Both had given up their U.S. House seats to seek the Senate seat of the retiring Pete Domenici.

Pearce won the statewide Republican primary and then lost to New Mexico’s other House member, Tom Udall, in the general election. Both Pearce and Wilson had indicated interest in running for governor in 2010 and both were considered strong candidates.

Life couldn’t look rosier for Denish. But recently elected state GOP Chairman Harvey Yates, Jr. had other ideas. By July, the whole picture started changing.

Pearce announced that he would seek to reclaim his former 2nd Congressional District seat. Wilson announced she was very busy with her consulting business and wasn’t sure if she would run for anything. A few months later she made it official. She was staying out.

And, in that same month of July 2009, Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez announced her candidacy for governor. No one gave her much of a shot. She was almost unknown outside her county.

   What was she even doing in the race? Well, apparently she was getting a lot of help. By March, Martinez crushed her four opponents at the state GOP nominating convention.

That came as a big surprise to this writer who had predicted convention victories by Republican Allen Weh and Democrat Brian Colon because they were the immediate past state chairmen of their parties. The prediction was accurate for Colon but Weh got trounced.

How could Martinez have had a full time job as district attorney while rounding up delegate votes all over the state? Allen Weh already had visited every county in the state by last fall.

That momentum continued for Martinez through the GOP primary. Donations rolled in, especially from Artesia, home base for state GOP chairman Yates.

And when Weh tossed in another $250,000 of personal money at the end of the campaign, a check for $450,000 arrived at the Martinez camp from Texas developer Bob Perry.

Martinez was getting some major league help, including a declaration from top state GOP leadership that Weh’s television ad about Martinez was not true while Martinez’s ad about Weh was OK.

So what appeared a year ago to be a bed of roses for Lt. Gov. Denish has evolved into a thorny problem today. It appears state GOP Chairman Yates has done some masterful strategizing in order to find and promote a strong candidate against Denish.

Yates, likely with much help from national Republican advisers, recognized the nation’s desire for fresh faces and change. Presiden Obama’s 2008 victory was startling for a candidate with a foreign name and scant experience.

Obama is now old hat but voters’ desire for fresh faces and change still is very much alive. A year ago Denish was a fresher face than Pearce or Wilson. But Martinez has turned the tables. She became the fresh face and she appears to still have her momentum.

Yates began building that momentum a year ago. At the same time Martinez announced her candidacy, Yates began a series of blistering attacks on Denish, tying her to Gov. Bill Richardson and the state ethics scandals.

When Richardson was at the height of his popularity leading up to the biggest margin of victory ever in 2006, the GOP effort had been to make Denish look independent of the governor.

But with Richardson’s popularity dipping, Yates began tying her to Richardson as closely as possible. Ever since then, it has become the Richardson-Denish administration.

What a difference a year can make.

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