Historic battle brews: Next NM Governor to be a woman

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By Barry Massey

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Republicans and Democrats made political history by selecting women as their gubernatorial nominees in New Mexico's primary, setting up a fall campaign that virtually guarantees the state its first female governor.

Republican Susana Martinez became the nation's first Hispanic woman nominated for governor by winning a five-way GOP contest with 51 percent of the vote in unofficial returns Tuesday.

Democrat Diane Denish, the lieutenant governor since 2003, ran unopposed in her party's primary.

The Nov. 2 race will be the third time in U.S. history that two women will run against one another in a gubernatorial general election.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting in the GOP race, former state party chairman Allen Weh had 27 percent of the vote. Doug Turner, who owns an Albuquerque public relations company, had 12 percent. Pete Domenici Jr., an Albuquerque lawyer and son of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, got 7 percent and 3 percent went to state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones of Albuquerque.

Martinez and Denish will battle to become chief executive of a state mired in an economic downturn and struggling with weak revenues, which likely will force the next governor to grapple with a budget shortfall and painful decisions about cutting education and governmental services.

The Republicans hope to win the governorship after eight years of Democratic control under Gov. Bill Richardson, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election. Denish was Richardson's running mate in 2002 and 2006.

Martinez said in an interview with The Associated Press that voters want "bold change" and Denish has been a "good little soldier for Bill Richardson."

"She had been part of the failed policies that have existed the last 7½ years despite her efforts to separate herself," said Martinez.

Denish said in a statement that "Martinez talks about change. I have a record of delivering it."

"Susana Martinez so far has only offered sound bites and empty promises. I've put forward solutions and new ideas for the future," Denish said. "During these tough times New Mexicans don't want the sizzle, they need the steak."

Democrats hold a 1.6-to-1 advantage in voter registration in New Mexico. But Republicans are upbeat about their chances in the November general election because of a restive mood among voters, who in contests across the nation have favored political outsiders over insiders.

The primary broke political ground in New Mexico because it was the first time that either Democrats or Republicans had selected female gubernatorial nominees.

Independents and minor parties still have an opportunity to add candidates to the race but they've never won a statewide office in New Mexico.

Martinez, 50, switched parties to run for district attorney in 1996 and defeated a Democratic incumbent. She's been re-elected since then in the state's second-largest county.

In the primary, she emphasized her experience in prosecuting crimes in a county that hugs the international border with Mexico. She advocated the repeal of state laws that allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses and for their children to qualify for state lottery-financed college scholarships.

Martinez also promised to fight corruption in state government.

Pay-to-play allegations have dogged the Richardson administration, and there's a pending federal investigation of state investments and the use of politically connected marketing agents.

"With the outcome tonight, we have said 'no' to the status quo in Santa Fe. We have said 'no' to the corruption that has cheated New Mexico of the integrity it deserves," Martinez told supporters Tuesday night in a victory celebration in Las Cruces.

Martinez was endorsed by former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her campaign picked up steam late in the race when the state GOP chairman denounced Weh's attack ads. Weh defended the ads and criticized party chairman Harvey Yates Jr. for taking sides in a primary race.

Without a Democratic primary opponent, Denish accumulated a hefty campaign war chest and aired television advertisements to polish her image in an effort to immunize her from likely GOP attacks in the general election. One ad outlined Denish's work to overhaul a scandal-ridden regional housing authority.

Denish, 61, is the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor in New Mexico. In that role, she advocated for programs for children, including pre-kindergarten, and played a role in legislation to tighten regulation of payday lenders. Before her election, she ran a company that did market research and fundraising for nonprofit organizations.

Hawaii in 2002 and Nebraska in 1986 had gubernatorial races in which the Republican and Democratic nominees were women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Republicans won both those elections.

Sabato said Martinez was the first Hispanic woman nominated for governor in the nation by either party.