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Four things to watch in the New Mexico House special election

NBC News logo NBC News 6/1/2021 Sahil Kapur
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WASHINGTON — Voters casting ballots Tuesday in the House special election in New Mexico will decide the size of the Democratic majority — and provide a rare glimpse into the political landscape in the era of President Joe Biden.

The race to fill the seat previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland pits Democrat Melanie Stansbury, a state representative and former Obama administration official, against Republican state senator Mark Moores.

The Democratic-leaning district is hardly a a bellwether for which party will win the 2022 midterms. And it could get carved up in the redistricting cycle. But turnout levels of Democrats and Republicans, as well as voting patterns of Latinos, will contain lessons about the political environment.

Here are four things to watch ahead of the results.

Can Democrats hold their own?

The contest in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, which includes Albuquerque, is the best chance so far this year for Republicans to pick up a seat that Democrats won in 2020.

Still, the district has a 9 percentage point Democratic advantage, according to the Cook Political Report. Haaland won the district by 23 points in 2018 and by 16 points in 2020.

"Democrats aren’t taking any votes for granted and are committed to ensuring New Mexicans make their voices heard in this important election," said Adrian Eng-Gastelum, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign arm.

A Democratic win would boost the House majority to a nine-person majority, giving Speaker Nancy Pelosi five — rather than four — votes to spare in order to pass a bill without GOP support.

But a Republican upset victory would be devastating for Democrats: Not only would it further shrink their paper-thin House majority at a time when Pelosi needs every vote to pass Biden’s agenda, it would send a warning sign for the party’s ability to hang on next year.

What’s the margin?

House special elections tend to be low-turnout affairs dominated by the most engaged voters, and the margin will tell who’s fired up and who isn’t.

For Stansbury, a big and decisive win would indicate that the party is holding its own. But hanging on in a squeaker would suggest that the landscape is tilting toward Republicans.

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There’s one caveat to the margin: It isn’t a two-way race, it’s a four-way race (unlike Haaland’s last two contests), depriving analysts of a blue-versus-red ballot test. Also in the contest are Libertarian candidate Christopher Manning and independent Aubrey Dunn, who has some name recognition as the state’s former Commissioner of Public Lands.

Is the GOP crime focus working?

Moores has focused his campaign extensively on crime and public safety. The “issues” page of Moore’s web site lists “Stopping Crime & Supporting Law Enforcement” prominently.

The race will gauge whether that message is the political panacea that Republicans are looking for, with evidence of violent crime rising across the U.S.

Stansbury, by contrast, is campaigning on racial justice and dismantling white supremacy along with other forms of oppression as a path to creating economic opportunity.

How do Latinos vote?

In the 2020 election, Democrats under-performed with Latinos across the country and it cost them seats. The New Mexico district includes a large share of Latino voters whose preferences will test whether that trend is continuing or reversing.

Recent surveys indicate that Biden has gained strength with Latinos since taking office. But will that translate to Democratic candidates down the ballot?

The answer could have implications for the 2022 midterms.

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