The Route 66 casino parking lot was utterly and completely jammed.
Cars decked with campaign signs outside gave a small taste of the political poster peppering awaiting inside.
Saturday was the Democratic pre-primary convention, political theater to many but a milestone of the 2014 campaign in a big way.
Although Republicans held their convention a week earlier, this weekend’s event was the true kickoff to the primary season for the state races. That’s because this was the first time the field of five Democratic gubernatorial candidates seeking to tangle with Gov. Susana Martinez in November was on full display and put to the test.
Winning is always nice but the number all five of them were watching Saturday was 20 percent. That’s the magic number needed to guarantee a spot on the June primary ballot. Not getting there doesn’t make winning the primary impossible technically because all it takes is getting more signatures to earn a spot. But falling under that level of support is almost certainly a campaign killer for many practically.
By the end of the longer than expected day, there were clear winners and clear losers. Oddly enough, petition signatures didn’t predict convention support as the candidate with the least, won big, and the candidate who got the most, lost big.
And before we get into those winners and losers… some context as to why this matters.
Four years ago, then-DA Susana Martinez won 47 percent of the vote at the Republican pre-primary convention. She handily won the party’s nomination and later the keys to the fourth floor.
2006 there was no convention fight in either party but in 2002, Bill Richardson blew Gary King out of the water with nearly 76 percent of the vote at that year’s Democratic convention. Then-Rep. John Sanchez scored 54 percent of the delegates’ vote at the Republican convention. Both won their primaries with Richardson topping Sanchez that November.
In 1998, former Albuquerque mayor Marty Chavez also won a decisive victory over Gary King at that year’s convention, taking 53 percent of the vote to King’s 23 percent. Chavez won the nomination but lost to incumbent Republican Gary Johnson.
Four years before that, Johnson squeaked out the needed 20 percent at the convention but lost. He still went on to narrowly win the primary. 1994 was the last time a gubernatorial candidate lost at the pre-primary convention and won their party’s nomination.
Winning doesn’t guarantee a primary win, but it’s a pretty strong indicator.
On the winning side this year was Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City. He’s the field’s youngest entrant (although he would not be the youngest New Mexico governor if elected), a state senator since 2008. Morales’ background is in education and backing from teachers’ unions was huge in propelling Morales to nearly 30 percent of the vote on Saturday. Morales’ high profile issue during the 2013 session was trying to massively overhaul the Martinez-backed A-F grading system. This session he was one of two senators on Senate Finance who voted for the early childhood amendment. Expect that to continue to be a big focus as he marches along toward June as the front-runner.
Runner-up Alan Webber also had a solid night. The first word I heard of the Fast Company co-founder and Santa Fe businessman was a campaign volunteer asking an attendee if they wanted a “John Webber” sticker. But he’s well in the mix for nomination now. A vote tally north of 21 percent was good enough for second place on Saturday. Webber is selling himself as the right man to bring jobs to New Mexico and lists that at the top of his platform on his campaign website. An assumed fundraising base, given his background, could provide another advantage.
Right behind him and just ahead of the 20 percent needed was longtime public administrator Lawrence Rael. Albuquerque’s former CAO had a loud presence at Saturday’s convention which rivaled Morales’ crowd volume. It translated into a close third place finish. Bronze medal or not, he’s earned his spot on the ballot. Rael’s campaign has pitched him as someone with the right resume for the job (“Experience Matters”). He’s certainly set himself up as the dark horse.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, drew a lot of attention during the last two sessions for holding a string of hearings on the controversial Downs deal and Martinez education appointee Hanna Skandera. All of that smoke didn’t quite light enough of a fire Saturday. Lopez fell less than 2 percent below the 20 percent needed when all was said and done. That may be challenged, but it’s a tough blow for the tough-talking candidate.
But Lopez’s disappointment wasn’t anywhere near the disaster attorney general Gary King had at Saturday’s convention, a familiar location for King as we mentioned earlier. King entered the race before anyone else and got more petition signatures than anyone else, but he still came in dead last.
It started with a strange blunder before the speeches began. In the convention hall, a string of ads for a number of candidates, including all five gubernatorial contenders, played for the assembled delegates. King’s stuck out like a sore thumb because it wasn’t an ad for governor.
It was one of his ads for when he was running for attorney general in 2010. How do we know? One is obvious… it specifically showed attorney general on the ad. But the other one was a web link in the ad directing people to GaryKing2010.com. That used to be a campaign site, but if you click on this link you’ll see it’s been sold off since then.
Then there was a speech that many delegates told me afterward seemed to fall flat.
That all led up to a fifth place finish. King cracked double digits, but not by much.
It’s unclear what the exact path forward is for Lopez and King. King already has the needed signatures to continue if he wants, but finishing fifth is a heavy blow. Lopez can at least say she was close to where she needed to be, a lesser hurdle but still a significant one.
Remember, since 1998, every pre-primary convention gubernatorial pick has gone on to secure their party’s nomination.
That being said, this was a much narrower win than any of the wins Martinez, Richardson, Sanchez, Chavez and Johnson enjoyed during that time frame. Because of that, Morales’ win is far from the knockout punch a blowout could’ve provided.
Governor Susana Martinez is sitting above the fray for now. She’s still enjoying solid approval numbers and is building up an impressive campaign war-chest for the race. Her camp released a statement along those lines today:
“The contrast between an optimistic Governor seeking to build on a record of achievement and move New Mexico forward versus the shrill voices of extreme politicians seeking to advance their own standing with out-of-the-mainstream rhetoric and dishonest attacks could not be more stark,” wrote campaign manager Danny Diaz.
A still-open race means there will likely be a lot of negative campaigning in the coming months. It’ll be interesting to see if the negativity among the Democratic hopefuls is directed more at the fourth floor… or at each other.
Either way, we now have a way to sift the gubernatorial hopefuls.
After Saturday we know there’s a front-runner, two very different men breathing down his neck, a fierce female senator who narrowly missed her target and a long shot with the best-known name of all of them.