Election could be determined by what else in on the ballot

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By Merilee Dannemann

The 2014 election is officially underway, with the filing of qualifying petitions last week. Five Democrats have lined up to challenge Gov. Susana Martinez. All five met the goal, submitting petitions with more than 3,000 signatures. Though there’s little media attention so far, the race is already energetic.
Martinez doesn’t have re-election locked in. She’s believed to be the heavy favorite today against an unnamed Democrat, but she could be vulnerable on a number of counts. So far, she’s managed to keep her public image separate from the most serious controversies of her administration. But we don’t know yet what voters are thinking.
The Democratic nominee could make hay of Martinez’s many out-of-state trips pursuing her own or her party’s political interests. Her well-publicized jaunt to New Jersey in November, campaigning for the re-election of Gov. Chris Christie, could turn out to be a liability — maybe because his reputation is now in question, or maybe just because she was gadding about the country instead of doing her job in New Mexico.
We still don’t know whether her administration’s controversial education policies are infuriating only teachers or also angering the voters at large; or whether the public has grasped the damage done in last year’s behavioral health debacle, when the state’s fragile system of behavioral health services was virtually dismantled.
We don’t know who the Democrats’ nominee will be. Five candidates are running, and there’s formidable opposition to early favorite Gary King.
And there are some potential wild cards in the deck: all those pesky proposed constitutional amendments now in consideration before the legislature. Those amendments could have a big effect on voter turnout.
The initiative to legalize marijuana is a case in point.
A few days before the session, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of the amendment, was speaker at a luncheon I attended. Someone asked if we could have a show of hands on the attendees’ views of that issue. We did. I was one of a small minority voting against (I favor decriminalizing marijuana, but not through the constitution).
This was a group of staid and sober adults. It’s a safe guess that young, otherwise unengaged voters would show up in numbers never before seen in New Mexico to vote for this. We could also reasonably guess that they not would vote Republican.
There’s also a proposal for an amendment prohibiting gay marriage, sponsored by Republican Sen. William Sharer, of Farmington, which could also work against Martinez by shifting voter turnout.
For an object lesson, consider the recent special election in Albuquerque.
In the regular (officially nonpartisan) city election, Republican Janice Arnold-Jones, running for city council, failed by a hair to get the 50 percent required by the city charter. So a special election was held a month later. That special election also carried a referendum question on late-term abortion. Arnold-Jones lost in the special election to Democrat Diane Gibson.
The regular city election, which included a mayoral race, had a mediocre turnout. The turnout in the special election was much larger, driven by the abortion question. The anti-abortion initiative was soundly defeated. No doubt the abortion issue brought out voters who would not have bothered to show up just for a city council race and helped Gibson defeat Arnold-Jones.
A recent poll shows New Mexicans are leaning slightly in favor of gay marriage. If the issue gets on the ballot, it will bring out yet another constituency and could give an advantage to Gov. Martinez’s opponent.
Neither of those amendments appears to be moving quickly in the Legislature. But things can move with lightning speed during the last few days of the session.
The election is not a foregone conclusion by any means.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through triplespacedagain.com.