Karen Tresierras seemed exhausted when she showed up to cast her ballot at the Belen Community Center Nov. 3. And she was less than enthusiastic about her choice of candidates. She’d planned to vote for Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
“Then I saw how close the race is,” Tresierras said.
Though she describes herself as a Democrat, Tresierras said she does not like the party’s nominee for president, Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state is too corrupt, she said. But the prospect of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump winning the White House was too much to bear.
Tresierras said she’d vote for Clinton, even if it would be a vote for what she described as the lesser of two evils.
Like many other voters streaming into polling sites around New Mexico last week, Tresierras said she was relieved the grueling election of 2016 is almost over.
It’s not just Clinton voters who are weary of this election. Kevin Billingham, who voted Nov. 3 in northeast Albuquerque, said he believes Trump would best pull the country together after a “nasty race.”
As the long, intense presidential campaign enters its final two days, the scandals, the harsh rhetoric, the indignant accusations and the never-ending stream of mean-spirited attacks have taken their toll. Voters and political observers from all political sides are saying this is the ugliest election they can recall.
“It’s outrageous,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform. “This is by far the nastiest election I’ve ever witnessed. Maybe it was worse 100 years ago or something, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
A New York Times/CBS News poll late last week found that an overwhelming majority of voters are, in the words of the Times, “disgusted by the state of American politics.”
But it’s not just the national race that has embittered New Mexico voters.
While there are no campaigns for governor or U.S. Senate this year, the battle over control of the state Legislature has been intense and ugly. Every seat in the state House and Senate — 112 in all — is up for grabs this year. Democrats are aiming to retake control of the state House, where the GOP has only a four-seat majority. Republicans are vying to win a majority in the state Senate, a feat the party has not pulled off in decades.
It seems like ages ago when Gov. Bill Richardson — who throughout his 2006 re-election campaign enjoyed a huge lead over his Republican opponent John Dendahl in both poll numbers and campaign money — had the luxury of running only positive television ads. One humorous spot depicting Richardson as an Old West sheriff received national attention.
Not that 2006 was some sort of golden age. That same year, Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson and her Democratic challenger, Patricia Madrid, spent millions ripping into each other with nonstop negative ads. And four years earlier, in his first run for governor, Richardson ran several negative ads against his GOP opponent, John Sanchez — breaking an agreement with Sanchez to keep the race positive.
But nothing in the past has matched the intensity of this year’s campaign.
Lonna Atkison, a political science professor at The University of New Mexico, said special interest groups and political action committees seem to be playing a bigger role in state-level races — and they seem louder and more strident than ever before. “When they have unlimited amounts of money and not much accountability, that’s what happens,” she said.
Harrison agreed that the rising amount of PAC money is a huge factor in the foul tone of the election. She cited the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Elections Commission as well as other high court decisions in recent years that have done away with spending limits for independent expenditure groups.
Two PACs, the GOP-friendly Advance New Mexico Now — run by Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey — and Patriotic Majority New Mexico — a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic PAC whose local spokeswoman is Richardson’s former political director Amanda Cooper — each spent more than $1 million since early October, according to campaign finance reports filed last week.
But it’s not just the PACs. Harrison said the candidates themselves are raising and spending more money in key seats. “It’s now common to see candidates spending $100,000 on a job that’s supposed to be an unpaid voluntary position,” she said. “Why aren’t they spending that money actually engaging their constituents instead of just sending out hit pieces?”
For a sense of the animosity that has come to characterize the races in battleground districts, look no farther than mailboxes around Belen.
“I get a lot of junk mail,” Elaine Rodriguez said after casting her ballot at the community center in this town of 7,200 people about a half-hour south of Albuquerque.
Rodriguez is exactly the kind of voter political action committees have been trying to influence this election season. She lives in the district of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, the top target for Republicans.
Advance New Mexico Now has flooded the district with mailers and aired television and radio ads attacking Sanchez. Though it’s also sending out ads in other legislative districts, the PAC has zeroed in on Sanchez, a longtime foe of the governor, with a Captain Ahab-like fixation.
Sanchez, in an interview last week, said he does not believe Martinez is intent on winning a majority in the Senate but is instead interested in ousting him. “I’m a thorn in her side,” he said.
Rodriguez said the mailers haven’t changed her mind, and she promptly throws them in the garbage. She thinks Sanchez has been doing all right. And she expects him to win another term.
Others voting at the Belen Community Center argued the Senate majority leader had been in office for too long and that it’s time for a change.
Effective or not, the current crop of negative ads represents a shift in New Mexico politics.
“It is a different election,” Sanchez said. “I’ve never seen this kind of outright lying.”
He was referring to a mailer sent by Advance New Mexico Now that accused him, without any evidence, of taking a state-paid junket to Hawaii. Sanchez says he’s never even been to the Aloha State.
But Sanchez and a Democratic PAC called New Mexico Together have unleashed their own attack ads, highlighting a child support case against his opponent, Greg Baca, and his arrest record for DWI and a fight over a decade ago. Baca has called the allegations that he failed to pay child support completely false.
Hard-to-disprove allegations are becoming more common in such attacks. Patriot Majority last week sent out a mailer accusing House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, of caring more about insurance company profits than breast cancer screenings — with no actual evidence.
And even when the press calls out such falsehoods, such ads tend to be “a good tactic,” Atkison said.
“It’s hard to retract a lie once it’s out in the public,” she said, adding that studies show that people remember the lie, not the fact-checking.
Harrison blamed this on the presidential candidates. “You see people fact-checking the candidates during the debates. It’s become the new norm, the candidates stand up there and lie.”
She argued that by focusing on attack ads, candidates are not engaging their constituents or speaking to the issues voters really care about.
Indeed, though conservative PACs have hammered Democrats for being “soft on crime,” few voters The Santa Fe New Mexican interviewed last week mentioned law enforcement issues as being important. Instead, the economy seemed to be the main issue on the minds of those filing in to cast ballots in Albuquerque and Belen.
“They’re not taking real positions,” Harrison said of candidates. “They’re not showing up to debates and forums. They’re just taking sound bites and mailing them out. Is it just winner-take-all? I’m so tired of the politician idea that we are all broken into just two camps. The problem is that we see that partisanship bleeding into what should be nonpartisan leadership.”
Atkison said the most important change in the political system in recent years is the fact voters don’t have common media sources anymore. “It used to be that we all watched the evening news,” she said. “Now nobody watches the evening news. Now people read stories that their friends or people with the same view post on Twitter.”
That means large segments of the population read only partisan “news” meant to reinforce their own political opinions.
“Nobody hears the other side,” she said. “Until we find a way to force discourse, there’s only going to be more polarization.”
And that, she said, could translate into louder and more hostile elections to come.
The Santa Fe New Mexican is a sister-paper of The Taos News. Contact Steve Terrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com. Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or email@example.com.