Purity vs. pragmatism in key race for governor

Former Reps. Lujan Grisham, Walz facing competitive races

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democratic former House member, faces a reelection race rated Lean Democratic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democratic former House member, faces a reelection race rated Lean Democratic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 21, 2022 at 6:15am

ANALYSIS — While Democrats are trying to maintain control of Congress in Washington, two former Democratic House members are in increasingly difficult races for reelection as governor in states far from Capitol Hill.

The good news for New Mexico Republicans is that their overall challenge to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is getting more competitive. The bad news is that recent comments by a local pastor are making their effort more complicated. 

Former local TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti leveraged a closer-than-expected race for the U.S. Senate in 2020 into a credible run for governor in 2022. 

Publicly, Ronchetti has said he would be in favor of legal access to abortion in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. But a local pastor said Ronchetti’s real goal was to ban abortion entirely. 

“His goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico, just so you know,” said Steve Smothermon, senior pastor of Legacy Church in Albuquerque, in a sermon available on YouTube. “You say, how do I know that? Because I talked to him for hours.” Of course Democrats pounced, while the Ronchetti campaign insists the candidate’s position has never changed. 

The situation is a great example of the complexity of abortion as an electoral issue after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

In the same sermon, the pastor, who is no fan of the governor, expressed frustration and disappointment with Ronchetti for being open to any situation or timeline in which an abortion could be legal. And in a Democratic-leaning state such as New Mexico, Ronchetti can’t afford to have any conservative voters remain on the sidelines. At the same time, motivating Republican voters won’t be enough to win in New Mexico. He needs independent, and potentially moderate Democratic, voters to knock off the governor. And those voters might be turned off by the most conservative pro-life position. 

The situation is only partially about the policy. It’s potentially about character. Part of Ronchetti’s appeal is that he’s an outsider and not a politician. But Smothermon’s comments paint a picture of a candidate saying one thing publicly and another thing privately, which is one of the main attributes of a caricature of a politician.

While it sounded like Smothermon was trying to comfort conservative congregants and help Ronchetti’s cause, he made it more difficult for pro-life Republicans to achieve their desired policy goal by making it harder for Ronchetti to win.

Despite the current firestorm, Ronchetti can still win. Lujan Grisham has challenges of her own, both self-inflicted and passed to her from President Joe Biden’s poor job approval rating. Inside Elections recently changed the rating of the race from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic. 

In Minnesota, meanwhile, polls show Democratic–Farmer–Labor Gov. Tim Walz in a close race for reelection. 

Republicans will choose their nominee in an Aug. 9 primary, but former state Sen. Scott Jensen is the front-runner. His running mate, former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Matt Birk, also made news on the abortion issue recently when he said, “Our culture loudly but also stealthily, promotes abortion. Telling women they should look a certain way, have careers, all these things.”

That doesn’t mean Walz, who represented southern Minnesota in Congress from 2007 to 2019, can’t be defeated, but Republicans can’t afford too many missteps. The GOP hasn’t won a gubernatorial race in Minnesota since 2006, when GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty won reelection by 1 point (and with less than 47 percent of the vote). In 2020, Biden defeated President Donald Trump by 7 points.  

Inside Elections recently changed the rating of the Minnesota gubernatorial race from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic. And there’s potential for it to get even more competitive. 

The rating in Oregon recently shifted from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic, although that’s not automatically good news for Republicans. 

Polling indicates it’s a legitimate three-way race between the Democratic nominee, former state House Speaker Tina Kotek; the GOP nominee, former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan; and independent candidate Betsy Johnson. Even though Johnson is a former Democratic state legislator, she has some crossover appeal to Republicans. 

The last Republican governor of Oregon, Vic Atiyeh, died eight years ago at age 91. And his 1982 reelection was the last time a Republican won a race for governor in the state. This year, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited and cannot seek reelection.

Moving even farther west, the race in Alaska is also getting more interesting. 

While the special election to replace the late GOP Rep. Don Young is getting the most attention (particularly with the presence of former Gov. Sarah Palin), the race for governor is complicated because of the state’s top-four primary and ranked-choice general election. 

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is still the front-runner, but if he doesn’t get more than 50 percent in November after either GOP state Rep. Christopher Kurka or Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce (also a Republican) are eliminated, then Democratic former state Rep. Les Gara or former Gov. Bill Walker, who is running as an independent, could end up ahead of Dunleavy in the final tally. 

The rating of the Alaska race for governor changed from Solid Republican to Likely Republican. 

Overall, there are currently 28 Republican governors and 22 Democratic governors. Democrats have great opportunities to win governorships in Democratic-leaning states including Massachusetts and Maryland while Republicans have a host of takeover opportunities in Republican-leaning or competitive states including Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Maine.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.