A special congressional election in New Mexico on Tuesday poses an early test of whether Republicans’ strategy of latching Democratic candidates to their party’s most progressive police reform proposals will help the GOP win control of the House in next year’s midterms.
Democratic state Rep. Melanie Stansbury and Republican state Sen. Mark Moores are facing off Tuesday for the 1st District congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Deb Haaland, who became President Joe Biden’s interior secretary.
The central New Mexico district, which includes most of Albuquerque, should be favorable ground for Democrats: The congressional seat has been in Democratic hands since 2009, after former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson retired to instead launch a Senate bid that would ultimately fail. And Democratic presidential nominees have won the district in every election since 2004. Biden defeated former President Donald Trump there by 23 percentage points last year.
But special elections are unique tests of parties’ organizational strength and the motivation of their bases. The margin of victory could be telling as the 2022 midterm elections approach and Democrats attempt to hold on to a narrow eight-seat, 219-211 majority, with five seats currently vacant.
The New Mexico race will be one of several early indicators — along with governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey this year — of the electorate’s mood headed into next year’s midterms. It could also offer a glimpse at whether Latino turnout will dip in a non-presidential election year, and whether Republicans’ gains with Latino voters in the 2020 election have continued.
Already, many of the votes in the race have been cast: More than 71,000 ballots, making up more than 15% of the registered voters in the district, were in by the middle of last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported. Registered Democrats had outpaced registered Republicans by more than a 2-to-1 margin in early voting.
First lady Jill Biden visited New Mexico last month, and the White House dispatched Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, to New Mexico late last week to campaign for Stansbury.
“We need more women in government, we need more women in business and we need more men to step up and support them,” Emhoff said while campaigning with Stansbury.
In ads and debates, Moores has attempted to tie Stansbury to the BREATHE Act, a proposal drafted by Black Lives Matter activists that would slash spending on police and defense and instead offer grants to poor communities. It would abolish mandatory minimums, the “three-strikes” law, life sentences, and expunge drug convictions. It would also eventually close federal prisons.
The wide-ranging proposal also touches other issues, including health care access and a universal basic income. It has not been introduced in Congress. But on Twitter, Stansbury offered her support for the activists’ proposal.
“The system is broken,” Stansbury tweeted last month. “We must pass the BREATHE Act in Congress. We need to pass the (George) Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We need to end qualified immunity at the federal level.”
Moores has seized on that comment, and on Stansbury’s refusal to rule the BREATHE Act out in an April forum to which Moores did not show up, in debates and advertisements. In one Moores ad, a narrator describes the proposal as “the most dangerous legislation in America.”
“Legislation that defunds or dismantles the police, empties every federal prison in 10 years — murderers, rapists and child molesters walking free,” the narrator says as the ad depicts a woman being abducted. “Stop the madness. Stop Melanie Stansbury before it’s too late.”
In a debate last month, Moores repeatedly pointed to Stansbury’s tweet. He said that “crime is out of control” and that his opponent is “part of the problem.”
Stansbury never directly addressed the BREATHE Act in the debate, but said she pushed for more funding for police to clear a rape-kit testing backlog and allow police to purchase gunshot detection technology.
“To address Albuquerque’s crime problem, we have to invest in public safety,” she said in the debate. “We need to be reforming policing in the city, and we need to be investing in the underlying causes of crime like addiction and behavioral health.”
National Democrats hope the race demonstrates that their voters are engaged after Democrats were surprisingly shut out of a runoff for a Texas congressional seat in early May, with Republicans finishing in the top-two spots.
“It’s crunch time. Don’t look at the polls. Don’t look at anything. Act like we’re down. There’s a sense of urgency, right?” Emhoff said in front of labor union members last week.