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The Trailer: In New Mexico, Democrats work to prove their Texas rout was a fluke

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/4/2021 David Weigel

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified New Mexico state Sen. Mark Moores's wife as LeeAn. Her name is Lisa. The article has been corrected.

In this edition: A suburban House battle in New Mexico, some Democratic debacles in Texas, and a bear roams the California campaign trail.

The only newsletter written with the support of live, dangerous animals: This is The Trailer.

Democratic congressional candidate Melanie Stansbury talks to volunteers at a canvass launch in Albuquerque on May 1. (David Weigel/The Washington Post.) Democratic congressional candidate Melanie Stansbury talks to volunteers at a canvass launch in Albuquerque on May 1. (David Weigel/The Washington Post.)

ALBUQUERQUE ― Melanie Stansbury laughed when she first saw the ad. The Democratic state legislator was taking some down time, some of the last she'd get before early voting began in the June 1 special congressional election, and heard the sirens, the narrator talking about rising crime, and then the claim that she'd “support legislation that defunds the police” and take their “guns away.”

“I was like: Where did this come from?” Stansbury said, after leading one of the party's weekend canvass launches for her campaign. “I literally laughed out loud, because it was so outrageous. Like, here is the $11 million dollars in public safety investments that I helped get for our community.”

State Sen. Mark Moores, Stansbury's Republican opponent, was happy to explain. On April 20, Stansbury Zoomed in to a forum sponsored by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative. Moores skipped it, citing a scheduling conflict. But it was there that Stansbury was asked whether she'd support the BREATHE Act, a legislative proposal from the Movement for Black Lives, which grew out of last summer's protests against police violence. The measure has never actually been introduced in Congress. She didn't rule it out.

“On their website, they talk about a radical defund police, prisons, punishment paradigm," Moores said in an interview here, referring to the Movement for Black Lives. “That's their words.”

Republicans have not run a competitive race in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District since 2012, as Albuquerque and its suburbs grew more strongly Democratic. When Democrat Deb Haaland left the seat this year to become interior secretary, Republicans saw an outside shot at winning a quick special election, reducing the Democrats' already narrow majority and taking back the suburban turf lost under President Donald Trump. 

Democrats, who saw that risk, nominated Stansbury over some more liberal challengers. And after the party's weekend debacle in a House special election in Texas, where Democrats struggled to turn out suburban votes, they're under renewed pressure to win — a big win, one that wouldn't suggest their base was demobilizing after Trump left the White House. Once the most competitive seat in the state, the 1st backed Joe Biden by 23 points.

“We know that specials have lower turnout, and the GOP is hoping that people will stay home, because that's the only way Mark Moores can win,” said Jessica Velasquez, the chair of New Mexico's Democratic Party. She pointed to the party's investments — 23 paid staff, 12 of them field organizers, digital ads targeting lower-propensity voters. “We are working around-the-clock to turn out Democrats.”

Democratic organizing transformed New Mexico during Trump's presidency. Before the 2016 election, Republicans held the governor's office, a majority in the state House of Representatives, and enough seats in the state Senate to sustain vetoes. Democrats now hold every statewide office and completely control a legislature that, after successful primary challenges to some conservative Democrats last year, has passed everything from legal marijuana to a ban on “qualified immunity” for police officers.

Stansbury was part of this transformation. Born and raised in the state, she trained as an ecologist, then went to Washington to work for the Obama-Biden administration, returning to New Mexico after a stint in the budget office. In 2018, she joined the wave of Democratic women winning suburban seats, with an eight-point victory over a Republican incumbent in Albuquerque.

“The issues that matter most here are things like education, addressing public safety, addressing systemic poverty in our state, and protecting the environment," Stansbury said. “And because the Democratic Party is the party that has really, like, reflected those values, I think there's been a migration of people to say, those are New Mexican values. And meanwhile, the Republican Party has leaned into a lot of very polarizing rhetoric.”

When Haaland was tapped for the Biden Cabinet, Stansbury emerged as a consensus candidate for her seat. In New Mexico's special elections, local parties pick candidates at conventions instead of in primaries. State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, who had sought the seat before, was the best-known candidate, one who Republicans sounded ready to run against: A liberal whose anti-gun and anti-fracking bills were too hot for other Democrats to touch. Stansbury triumphed on a second ballot and brought most of her defeated rivals onto the campaign.

“We need to turn out the vote, not just for New Mexico, but for the country,” Stansbury told volunteers at one of three canvass launches last Saturday, speaking through a face mask to two dozen masked volunteers, including one of those former challengers.

Republicans picked their nominee at a convention, too, opting for Moores over conservative Latino radio host Eddy Aragon. The party has struggled to find credible candidates in the district as Albuquerque moved left; Haaland, the most liberal representative it had ever had, sailed to two victories. Moores was the kind of candidate Republicans felt they were missing, a towering ex-football player who had held on in a Biden-won seat and who, with his wife, Lisa, was a partner at an anatomic pathology lab. Although solidly conservative, Moores hadn't been picking the sort of fights that backfired on the party, like insisting that the 2020 election was stolen or that the coronavirus wasn't a serious threat.

“I saw firsthand how serious this virus was,” Moores said in an interview after a meet-and-greet with Republicans in Los Lunas, on the conservative southern outskirts of the district. “When you go to the cars and you see people taking that test, you learned to identify just by the look in their eyes whether they're sick. It's not lost on me that we tested people who died.” 

There are signs of exhaustion with Democrats in the district, like “NO MLG” signs in strip malls where owners are angry about the state's lockdowns — MLG being Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But the state has been ahead of the curve on vaccinations, especially on tribal lands, and the state's shutdown rules could be over by the June 1 election. Some issues that animate New Mexico Republicans, such as the Biden administration's drilling moratorium on public lands, are potent outside the district, but nine in 10 votes in the 1st come from Albuquerque's Bernalillo County, not from places that rely on drilling.

In rural areas, Moores has thrilled conservatives who have been used to losing. At a Friday stop in tiny Estancia, he was joined by the city's mayor, Nathan Dial, who carried a pistol in his holster and wore a mask reading “MY GOVERNOR IS AN IDIOT.” Both Santa Fe and Washington, Dial said, had “forgotten about the rurals." Steve Pearce, the chairman of New Mexico's GOP, said in an interview that the party had lost so much ground under Trump because of frustration with his coronavirus response, but that Democrats would struggle to “duplicate" their turnout without Trump on the ballot.

“I was just at the RNC last week in Dallas and they’re all in, the NRCC's all in,” Pearce said. “It made a big difference this weekend that Republicans got 62 percent of the vote in the Texas race. I think the president won there by 51 percent. And I think that intensity is going to continue into this race.”

National Democrats ignored the Texas race. They are not ignoring this one. On Saturday, DNC Chair Jaime Harrison joined more than 100 canvassers on a Zoom call before they hit the doors in Albuquerque, telling them that they needed to work “harder than ever before” to prevent a victory by Republicans who were “denying science.” 

Moores's decision to go on the air early, aided by a loan to his campaign, pushed Stansbury to respond, with an ad dinged by fact-checkers for suggesting that Moores “opposed every measure to help people in the pandemic," when he'd voted for some of the state's 2020 emergency measures. But in an interview, Moores declined to say whether he'd have supported the American Rescue Plan, and Democrats have highlighted that he skipped the race's first forum while giving time to conservative news outlets such as Breitbart.

“He's a coward and he can't defend his far-right voting record,” Velasquez said.

The district's Democratic lean hands plenty of advantages to Stansbury. President Biden is popular in the district, and when first lady Jill Biden came to Albuquerque last month, she spent some time with Stansbury — cameras on. Although no left-wing third party entered the race, several candidates are offering conservative alternatives to Moores, including former state land commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican-turned-Libertarian-turned-independent, whose ads portray him stepping in bull excrement to symbolize what the two major parties have to offer.

“I think that after Trump, it's almost impossible for some Democrats to vote for any Republican,” Dunn said in an interview as he drove through his 26,000-acre ranch in Torrance County, a conservative stronghold that casts a fraction of the district's vote. “This election is probably going to have the hard progressivism and the hard right fighting it out, but Moores can be a little wishy-washy. He's not 100 percent on abortion, and he's not 100 percent on guns."

The tension between what swing voters might want to hear, and what Republicans might demand of Moores, was visible at his stop in Los Lunas. Walking back and forth in front of an inflatable elephant, Moores said that he was competing for the “only winnable seat in the country." Although Democrats had let crime grow unchecked, he said, he would approach the problem with “compassion,” describing a member of his family who “fell into the path of drug use and made some bad mistakes." Then he took questions, and quickly got asked about how to “get the election fixed,” a reference to claims that the 2020 race was stolen. 

“We've been working really closely with the state party on that,” Moores said. “We really need poll challengers and poll watchers.”

After the event, Moores declined to respond directly to Trump's claim that the 2020 election was rigged. “That's behind us,” Moore said. “I believe in our republic. I believe that you have elections and move on. And I'm very disheartened on both sides of the aisle with some of the rhetoric, because America is still a 240-year-old experiment.” Asked whether he would have voted to impeach Trump or challenge the results in swing states — New Mexico's GOP had submitted an alternate slate of electors, even though Trump lost by 10 points statewide — Moores said he would have supported “moving forward as a nation.” He did not explain what that meant. If Trump endorsed him, as he had endorsed Republican candidates in the year's first two special House elections, Moores said he'd accept it.

“I'll take support from anyone, anyone who helps us to victory,” Moores said. “Absolutely.”

Reading list

a person sitting at a table in a restaurant: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) waits for the arrival of President Biden before he addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on April 28, 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Pool) © Melina Mara/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) waits for the arrival of President Biden before he addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on April 28, 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Pool)

“Texas Democrats concede lockout in House special election,” by David Weigel and Amy B Wang

Inside a suburban liberal debacle.

“G.O.P. seeks to empower poll watchers, raising intimidation worries, by Nick Corasaniti

An old election pressure tactic returns, with new aggression.

For Republicans, fealty to Trump’s election falsehood becomes defining loyalty test, by Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor

It's 2020 forever.

“Lin Wood is just asking questions,” by Tim Miller

A conspiracy-laden campaign to chair the GOP in South Carolina.

“As he reemerges onto the public stage, Pence sticks to the same strategy he used by Trump’s side: Total fealty,” by Josh Dawsey

The quiet man returns.

Turnout watch

a person standing in front of a window: Democratic congressional candidate Jana Lynne Sanchez campaigns at a party office in Waxahachie, Tex., on April 17. (David Weigel/The Washington Post) © David Weigel/TWP Democratic congressional candidate Jana Lynne Sanchez campaigns at a party office in Waxahachie, Tex., on April 17. (David Weigel/The Washington Post)

If you were reading this newsletter, you knew Texas Democrats stood a chance of missing the runoff in the 6th Congressional District. If you were one of the Democrats running in the 23-way primary, which ended on May 1, you were probably skeptical.

“There’s no reason to worry about that,” businesswoman Lydia Bean said before Saturday's election, referring to the risk of an all-GOP runoff. 

“Our fundraising has proven that I can put together a coalition in order to win this seat,” said Shawn Lassiter, a nonprofit CEO who raised slightly more money than any other Democrat in the race.

They were wrong. Private polling had found Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez near the top of the field in the all-candidate race, alongside three Republicans: state Rep. Jake Ellzey, former Trump HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison, and party activist Susan Wright, the widow of the district's last congressman. 

Sanchez, the Democrats' 2018 nominee, won 10,497 votes, more than any other candidate of her party. But it was 354 votes less than Ellzey won, setting up an all-Republican run with Wright. Most Democratic voters, 18,707 of them, voted for Lassiter, Sanchez, or a lesser-known candidate. The result was mocked by former president Donald Trump, who took credit for the lockout, arguing in a statement that his endorsement of Wright made it happen. But Sanchez had been warning activists that they would throw the election away if Democrats split their votes.

“If it's not me, it's going to be a Republican,” Sanchez told volunteers last month during a stop in Ellis County, one of the Republican strongholds that helped Ellzey into the runoff.

Trump, who endorsed Wright five days before the election, helped her dominate the Election Day vote after running basically even with Ellzey in the early vote. The first-term legislator had run for the seat in 2018, giving him stronger name identification than other candidates, and he had outraised Wright. But what sunk Democrats was a similar last-minute surge, of voters in Tarrant County, toward Lassiter, a first-time candidate who got the attention of national donors with a powerful intro video and the support of some liberal PACs. The 314 Action Fund, which backs STEM candidates, and the Collective PAC both backed Lassiter, who is Black; the local AFL-CIO and Teamsters backed Bean.

None of them put money into the race, but the attention helped Lassiter outraise Sanchez. Local Democratic Party groups stayed out of the scrum, opting not to take sides in a district where Black voters outnumber Latino voters. County parties could have held endorsement meetings but opted not to, creating a free-for-all and a predictable debacle. In statements after the vote, Lassiter and Bean talked generally about how the party needed to unify. Sanchez was more blunt, tweeting that Democrats had simply bet too much on their voters staying energized by Republican outrages.

“I thought the special election would be a great opportunity. I was wrong,” Sanchez wrote. “All the things I thought would motivate Democrats, such as the attempted violent overthrow of a legitimate election result, along with Snowmaggedon, both of which demonstrate the GOP's quest for power and failure to serve voters, failed to get our voters out. I'm sounding the alarm bell: If Democrats don't organize and prepare, 2022 could be a major setback to our gains of recent years.”

Turnout was paltry for both parties, even though the race overlapped with local municipal elections, including a hotly contested race for mayor of Arlington, the district's biggest city. Just 29,204 ballots were cast for Democrats, compared to the 149,530 votes cast for the Democratic candidate here in the 2020 election. Just 48,554 ballots were cast for Republican candidates, down from the 179,507 votes won by the late Rep. Wright six months ago. Put another way, just 27 percent as many voters cast ballots for Republicans as did so last year; just 20 percent as many voters showed up for Democrats this year compared to last. It was a steeper turnout falloff than either party saw in Louisiana, which held special House elections in March and April, with total turnout cracking 100,000 in the race won by Rep. Julia Letlow (R).

Who else stumbled in Texas? The candidate hurt most by Trump's intervention was not Sanchez; it was Harrison, Trump's former chief of staff at HHS, whose campaign was premised on his work to continue the “America First” agenda. Trump's last-minute endorsement blew up that strategy. Michael Wood, the conservative veteran who ran as critic of Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election, got 2,503 votes and landed in ninth place; as he feared, Trump supporters mocked his showing, citing it as evidence that the party had gotten fully behind the MAGA agenda.

“It feels like in a lot of ways we've gone through a looking-glass, Wood told CNN on Tuesday. Those of us in the party who are against insurrection and lying are finding ourselves turned into fringe candidates.”

Even less surprisingly, voters rejected Dan Rodimer, a former wrestler who moved from Nevada to file for the Texas race at the last minute, and who raised more money than Wright or Sanchez with viral, splashy ads that promised to fight liberals in Washington using imagery like a bull ride performed by a stunt double, and a helicopter ride over a field of pigs. Rodimer was the latest in what might become a 2021 trend — candidates to whom who consultants can direct media attention, with no promise of actual votes.

Ad watch

a man standing next to a stuffed animal: Republican congressional candidate Mark Moores talks with supporters at a meet-and-greet in Los Lunas, N.M., on May 1. (David Weigel/The Washington Post.) Republican congressional candidate Mark Moores talks with supporters at a meet-and-greet in Los Lunas, N.M., on May 1. (David Weigel/The Washington Post.)

Melanie Stansbury, “Far.” The Democrat in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District has run one negative spot, focusing more on feel-good ads that portray the Albuquerque area as a community ready to keep supporting President Biden. “She passed that grid bill,” says one voter, pumping his fist ― a memorable way to explain Stansbury’s major achievement in Santa Fe, legislation that modernized the state’s power grid.

Mark Moores, “Defund.” The second of Moores's attack ads in New Mexico, discussed higher up in this newsletter, portrays Stansbury as a radical who won't fight left-wing attempts to defund the police. Neither claim against Stansbury includes a source; Moores says that the references to “legislation that defunds the police” and “taking guns away from local police” are to liberal bills that have been discussed in Washington, though are not on track to pass.

John Cox, “Beauty or the Beast?” Republican ad-maker Fred Davis, creator of a memorable 2010 confection that personified liberal corruption as a demonic sheep and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California as an out-of-control zeppelin, has rebooted Republican California gubernatorial candidate John Cox with the image of a friendly bear. “We need big, beastly changes in Sacramento,” Cox says, as footage shows him walking alongside the bear that's both the state mascot of California and the new symbol of his campaign. The “beauty” is Newsom, with the ad reshaping the usual critique of the Democrat — that he's aloof and elite — to suggest he's too focused on his image.

Poll watch

a group of people sitting at a table in a room: President Biden gives remarks on the coronavirus response and vaccinations in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post) © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post President Biden gives remarks on the coronavirus response and vaccinations in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Did Joe Biden legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, or not? (CNN/SSRS, 1004 adults)

Yes: 65%

No: 30% (-2 since January)

Republicans in state legislatures have taken former president Donald Trump's lead in re-litigating the 2020 election, passing voting restrictions in states and even funding a private firm's audit of the vote in Arizona. The result of it all, since the Jan. 6 insurrection: Slightly fewer people doubt the election results. Since January, independents' faith in the Biden win has gone from 66 percent to 69 percent, Republicans' has gone from 19 percent to 23 percent, and Democrats' actually declined from 99 percent to 97 percent. Each shift is within the margin of error, which means it's possible that no minds have changed since January. 

That's not what the president's defenders have hoped for, with pillow-maker-turned-voting-machine analyst Mike Lindell suggesting that information that proves election fraud will emerge soon, and prove so convincing that Democrats support Biden's removal from office. It's not what Democrats have hoped for, either, and the pollster's attempt to find out what changes voters do and don't think will risk election fraud revealed the holes in their strategy. Sixty-four percent of voters say it would make elections more “fair” if every voter had to provide photo ID, a GOP priority that Democrats' For the People legislation would halt. But just 36 percent of voters say issuing absentee ballots to everyone would risk cheating or unfairness, just 34 percent say so of installing ballot drop boxes, just 23 percent say so of allowing voters to register at the polls, and just 17 percent say so of registering voters automatically when they turn 18 — all changes that Republicans in state legislatures have worked to undo.

In the states

a bear that is standing in front of a bus: A 1,000-pound bear stands in front of the campaign bus for California Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox during a campaign rally at Miller Regional Park in Sacramento on Tuesday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images A 1,000-pound bear stands in front of the campaign bus for California Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox during a campaign rally at Miller Regional Park in Sacramento on Tuesday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Two of the Republicans seeking to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom debuted new messaging on Tuesday, but only one of them campaigned with a live bear.

John Cox, the businessman who lost a 2018 bid against Newsom in a rout, had started his campaign by attacking former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, arguing that he and not Faulconer was the race's reliable conservative. Cox shook up his campaign last month, brought on viral ad-maker Fred Davis, and released the results in Sacramento: He was now “the beast,” challenging “the beauty” (Newsom), alongside a bear. What point does the bear serve? Well, you're reading about it now, aren't you?

“We need to recall our pretty boy governor,” Cox said in Sacramento. “Over 2 million people literally put their name on the line to recall him.” Cox got 4.7 million votes in his first challenge to Newsom, while the Democrat won 7.7 million.

Cox's appearance with the bear, his bear-themed bus, and his trip to the restaurant where Newsom made the biggest blunder of his career did what had seemed impossible: It pushed Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian running with the support of onetime Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, out of the recall news cycle for a few hours. 

Jenner, whose only public appearance since her campaign announcement has been a conversation with a TMZ reporter about transgender students playing sports, released a video about the theme of her race — she's a “compassionate disrupter” who believes that Newsom has ruined the state. Her campaign updated a website that previously contained only a merchandise store, adding a four-part list of “solutions,” such as vetoes of any new taxes, 10-year sunsets for regulations, and support for affordable housing to alleviate homelessness. It's comparable to what Cox and Faulconer have laid out, with the former promising to fight any new taxes and the latter promising “a top-to-bottom review of spending.”

The emergence of the GOP field has kept Democrats unified, with no one from Newsom's party exploring a bid for the recall ballot, and this weekend's state convention focusing again and again on the threat of Trump's party grabbing the governorship after failing to win it three years ago. 

“They’re throwing everything they can at their recall power grab, all in hopes of rolling back all the important progress we’ve made together, Newsom said. On Tuesday, he appeared with firefighters, whose unions have endorsed him, his first event specifically about opposing the recall.

“Now is not the time to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a Republican power grab,” Newsom said. “I hope people take the time to find out what this actually is. These are people who don't believe in science.”

Newsom mentioned none of his challengers by name. Asked about the “beauty and the beast” campaign, Newsom ignored Cox entirely, saying how “proud” he was of the state's economic recovery. 

“The best is yet to come, Newsom said. “We have the lowest positivity in case rates in America. We have strategies and plans that deal with the preexisting issues that existed when I got here, just 26 months ago.” And he repeatedly described the recall effort as a waste of “hundreds of millions of dollars” to set up an election just a year before he'd appear on the ballot anyway.

“Wouldn't you rather be giving them more equipment, instead of printing ballots?” Newsom said, pointing to the firefighters.

Dems in disarray

Charlie Crist standing in front of a flag: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) announces his run for governor in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday. (Chris O'Meara/AP) © Chris O'meara/AP Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) announces his run for governor in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The rout for Texas Democrats last week extended beyond the 6th Congressional District. In Austin, Republicans backed a ballot measure to restore a ban on public camping, which had been undone by the city's Democratic leaders. It passed by double digits. In San Antonio, police unions opposed Measure B, designed to weaken their collective bargaining power, backed by Democrats such as former mayor Julián Castro and by luminaries like San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich. That passed narrowly, even while the city's Democratic mayor, Ron Nirenberg, was winning reelection easily.

In Florida, one month after the death of Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) set the dates of elections to replace him. Party primaries will be held on Nov. 2, the same date as the state's off-year municipal elections; the general election will come two months later, on Jan. 11, 2022. Joe Biden carried the seat by 55 points, making the eventual Democratic nominee the all-but-certain winner of that January election. The timing gives a bit more flexibility to state Democratic legislators and county officials, who were concerned about the state's resign-to-run law, which could reduce the party's numbers in Tallahassee and allow the governor to appoint Republicans in county jobs that Democrats win easily.

Meanwhile, Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida announced Tuesday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor, his second attempt to win the job he held for one term while still a moderate Republican, from 2007 to 2011. Unlike Crist's last statewide bid, when he won the party's 2014 nomination, there's no effort to clear the field for him; unlike seven years ago, he's giving up a swing seat in the House to make his play.

Countdown

… four days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia

… 28 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District

… 35 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia

… 49 days until New York Citys primary

… 91 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District

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