A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 3, 2010
ALBUQUERQUE — After eight years in Gov. Bill Richardson’s shadow, Diane Denish on Tuesday became the latest lieutenant governor to lose a race at the top of the ticket.
The Democratic Party nominee conceded shortly before 10 p.m. — nearly two hours after NBC declared Republican Susana Martinez to be the winner. Denish told supporters at Hotel Andaluz in Albuquerque that she hadn’t yet spoken to Martinez because “I wanted to speak with my supporters and friends first.”
Denish urged Democrats in the Legislature to work with their Republican counterparts and the new Republican government. The state’s problems, she said, “will demand civility and respect. The people of New Mexico deserve that respect.”
Denish, referring to the harsh tone of the gubernatorial contest, said this is “an era of great cynicism. The competition of ideas has lost out to the competition of ‘gotcha,’ ” she said. She then admitted that she also was guilty of getting caught up in the “gotcha” game in her campaign against Martinez.
Despite the fact that most statewide Democratic candidates won and the party apparently will retain control over the Legislature, the gathering at the Andaluz was a relatively subdued affair, especially in contrast with the Democratic celebrations in 2008, when Barack Obama carried the state by a wide margin, and in 2006, when Richardson won a landslide victory with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Besides Denish’s loss, the Democrats also lost the Secretary of State’s Office as the beleaguered Mary Herrera was defeated by Republican Dianna Duran. Most of the down-ballot races were closer than many pundits predicted.
One mother, whose baby was crying at the party, perhaps summed it up: “That’s how all Democrats feel tonight, honey,” she told her unhappy child.
National news networks declared Martinez the winner shortly after 8 p.m. “I’m not going to believe it until I see it,” one Albuquerque Democratic activist declared. But as the raw numbers continued to come in over big-screen televisions around the hotel lobby, Denish’s defeat grew more and more apparent.
“I’m glad I’m not running this year,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told a reporter early in the evening. “It’s very volatile.”
Carter Bundy, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said of Martinez’s victory: “I hope she keeps her promise of cutting the government back to the level it was under (former Gov.) Gary Johnson, because it’s already there. There’s not anything left to cut.” The public employees union was a major Denish backer.
Tuesday was the end of one of New Mexico’s harshest and most bitterly fought gubernatorial races. Almost immediately after the June primary, the negative ads started blasting on TV, with each candidate accusing the other of dishonesty and deceit and each exaggerating her opponent’s flaws. At the first televised debate last month, it seemed as if neither candidate even cracked a smile.
Martinez continually attacked Denish over the fact that her husband, Herb Denish, worked as a lobbyist for a developer who received a huge tax break. Even FactCheck.org, a national nonpartisan campaign watchdog, said the ad was misleading because it didn’t prove that Denish misused her office to help the developer get the tax break. Even so, Martinez continued to run ads about Herb Denish.
Denish also was criticized early in the campaign by FactCheck.org for distorting Martinez’s record. And later in the campaign, she ran ads emphasizing the fact that Martinez was born in Texas and claimed the Republican wanted to use the Governor’s Office to side with Texas to get more New Mexico water. Former President Bill Clinton took up this line of attack during a campaign stop in Española — even though the campaign never showed any evidence of such a plot and Martinez denied it.
In the campaign, Denish never was able to convince voters of her independence from Richardson — whose political fortunes turned sour during the last half of his second term. Following his failed bid for the presidency in 2008, his nomination to a Cabinet position with Obama was aborted because of a federal investigation of an alleged pay-to-play scheme. More scandals involving state investments followed.
Though he never was charged with any crime, Richardson’s political capital evaporated. The scandals, along with the state’s poor economy and a budget crisis that’s lasted two years, led to Richardson’s approval ratings tanking. One recent poll showed him with only 27 percent approving of his job performance.
Martinez exploited Richardson’s problems and attempted to tie Denish with every bit of bad news to come out of the Fourth Floor. She and other Republicans faithfully referred to “the Richardson/Denish administration.” In one ad that even made some Democrats chuckle, Martinez used 2006 footage of Denish laying the praise on Richardson.
Denish emphasized her differences with Richardson and publicly opposed him on a handful of issues that surfaced during the campaign. But she never made a strong break from her old running mate.
Although many have tried, no sitting lieutenant governor since 1916 has succeeded in winning the New Mexico governorship.
Walter Bradley, the previous lieutenant governor who attempted to become governor, said in a recent interview that the task is very difficult, if not outright impossible. “You cannot divorce yourself from the administration you’re serving,” Bradley said. “Whatever is negative — small or large — is going to stick to you. ... People want a change, particularly after eight years. I think that’s the driving force.”