Of all the marquee House primaries taking place across six states Tuesday, none has gone to the wire like the three-way Democratic race in New Mexico's 1st District. Former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez was the early favorite to replace Rep. Martin Heinrich, who is running for the Senate, but recent polling showed that the primary has become a two-way contest between state Sen. Eric Griego and Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Both have benefited from strong fundraising, help from outside groups, and escalating momentum as June 5 drew near. Now both will try to close the deal with turnout.
Griego and his allied national progressive groups have confidence in his get-out-the-vote operation, as do a number of unaffiliated local observers. In the available independent polling, Griego has held small leads among self-identified liberal primary voters, and he believes that will carry him through. "The majority of the electorate identifies as liberal or progressive, and a majority of primary voters are women; they tend to lean progressive, so there's some overlap there," Griego said. "We have to do well with those groups."
As Lujan Grisham made her charge from the back to the front of the pack over the last few months, many speculated that she was taking advantage of being the only woman in the primary during a period of national focus on women's political issues. But her support is based more in the middle of the primary electorate, in the ideological territory between Griego and the more moderate Chavez. "Michelle really appeals to all types in the electorate," said Lujan Grisham's campaign manager, Dominic Gabello. "We dug into our data and looked where we were weak, and we have tried to go there and fix that."
Life in the middle means Lujan Grisham is more liable to get her support squeezed away from either side -- she and Griego have been involved in a vicious ad war over the final weeks of the primary, and Chavez can't be totally discounted because of his high name recognition and long-standing political base. But the pre-primary surveys showed that Lujan Grisham had taken control of the middle at just the right time, as early voting was beginning. In essence, the primary will match Lujan Grisham's momentum with Griego's ballyhooed turnout operation. Both campaigns have seen their forward progress threatened by negative legal stories and TV ads in the final days of the campaign, but the stage is set for a close finish tonight.
No matter who wins the primary, one outcome is certain: The Democratic nominee, who will become the general election favorite, will also be Hispanic. Last week, National Journal covered how difficult it has been for the Hispanic community in Texas to increase Hispanic representation in Congress, even though nearly two-thirds of the state's recent population growth has come from Latinos. But in New Mexico, where the Hispanic population has been an even bigger driver of the state's growth, the 48 percent Latino 1st District stands a very good chance of starting next year with a Latino representative in Congress.