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New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats were beaten and embarrassed on Tuesday, May 13 when voters in the normally Democratic 3rd C.D. of New Mexico elected Republican Bill Redmond to Congress in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the confirmation of Bill Richardson (D) as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Redmond drew 43 percent to 40 percent for Democrat Eric Serna and 17 percent for Green Party candidate Carol Miller.

Let's be clear about a couple of things about this outcome: It would never have happened if the Democrats had selected a stronger candidate, if the Green Party had not selected its own nominee and run an aggressive race, and if the balloting had taken place during a normal Election Day.

But special elections are won and lost on turnout, and GOP operatives wisely sensed early on that an upset was possible if all of the planets aligned perfectly. And that's just what happened.

Serna had plenty of baggage, and the Republicans wouldn't let him -- or the voters -- forget it. Some Democrats complained about the process by which party leaders selected him as the Democratic nominee. More importantly, Republicans and Green Party activists attacked the Democrat for allegedly profiting from his position as corporation commissioner. Serna tried to change the subject by painting Redmond as a Christian conservative extremist who was out of touch with the district and by arguing that a vote for Miller was a wasted vote that could lead to Redmond's election. But those messages didn't seem to sway his critics.

Miller and other Green Party leaders argued that the special election gave them an unusual opportunity to show their strength and to institutionalize the Green Party as a legitimate contestant for office. Some in the party acknowledged that Serna would have a better pro-environment vote in Congress than would Redmond, but Green Party voters apparently decided that didn't matter enough to support the embattled Democrat. In this case, argued Miller, the lesser of two evils just wasn't good enough.

Even some Democrats thought the election of Redmond wouldn't be much of a disaster. Ambitious Democrats who hoped to run for Congress and those who disliked Serna argued that Redmond couldn't hold the seat in 1998, so the main result of his victory would be to destroy Serna and re-open the contest to pick the Democrat who would regain the district next year.

For Republicans, the election gave them the rare chance to win by taking advantage of a divided Democratic party, a division in the liberal ranks, and a special election which would guarantee a relatively small turnout (compared to both 1994 and 1996).

Redmond wasn't a particularly articulate or charismatic candidate, and he had lost a congressional bid only seven months earlier to Richardson, winning just a third of the vote. But GOP strategists really didn't want to make the election about their nominee. They hoped that by presenting Redmond as unthreatening, he would become an acceptable alternative to Serna. And they succeeded in making the election a referendum on the Democrat rather than a choice between the Republican nominee and the Democratic candidate.

While Redmond drew 43,472 votes (42.5 percent), roughly three quarters of his 1996 vote total, Serna attracted just 40,424 votes (39.7 percent), far, far below the 124, 595 votes (67.2 percent) that Democrat Richardson drew in November. And the Green candidate, Miller, drew 17, 079 votes (16.8 percent). Assuming that most of those voters would have preferred the Democrat in a head-to-head contest against Redmond, Serna would have won easily if the Greens had not nominated their own candidate. Miller drew a stunning 34.1 percent in Santa Fe County (just behind Serna's 39.4 percent), as well as 27.7 percent in Taos County.

Redmond won by beefing up his margin in the northeast part of the state, but also because Miller took votes away from Serna in normally Democratic areas.

Liberal and conservative interest groups were active in the campaign, with small business (National Federation of Independent Business), the pro-life community and other right-of-center groups backing Redmond and organized labor and many national environmental groups supporting Serna. Veteran consumer activist Ralph Nader visited the district for Green Party candidate Miller. But while Serna apparently had a substantial financial advantage over Redmond (and ever more so over the underfunded Miller), Serna simply wasn't able to translate that advantage into turnout.

Can Redmond hold the seat next year? Yes, but the odds of doing so are much longer than in the special, and the Republican will start off as a substantial underdog. Insiders note that Redmond will put a major effort into constituent services as he tries to show that he can be an ombudsman for 3rd C.D. residents, and the Democratic nominee probably won't have the huge financial advantage that Serna did this time. Moreover, Democrats could again be divided in 1998 as they were in the special, giving Redmond another opportunity to appeal to disaffected Democrats.

But Redmond doesn't have the personal skills to personalize this district enough to ward off a strong Democratic nominee. He'll need a divided Democratic Party, a Green Party nominee and a good deal of luck to be competitive next year. That's not impossible. For the Democrats, however, New Mexico 3 becomes their top House takeover target next year.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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