- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Earlier this summer, as the debate over illegal aliens raged, pundits declared that Republicans jeopardized their political futures with Hispanic voters if they supported Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s get-tough immigration bill.

But with less than two months until the November elections, a conservative gubernatorial candidate in a state bordering Arizona has taken a clear lead in the polls. That candidate happens to be a Republican.

A Republican woman. A Republican woman who happens to be Hispanic.

Susana Martinez has jumped out to a five-point lead in a Rasmussen poll and a six-point lead in a poll conducted by the Albuquerque Journal in the New Mexico governor’s race - even though Democrats in the state hold a clear edge over Republicans among registered voters.

If the numbers hold, Miss Martinez will not only become the first woman elected governor in New Mexico, she will become the first Hispanic woman elected governor in the nation’s history.

“It’s exciting,” Miss Martinez said recently about her possibly history-making campaign. “I’m hopeful that I can be a positive role model for Hispanic girls, letting them know that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve. But more importantly, I’m concerned about turning things around here in New Mexico.”

More than ethnic considerations, it’s the sad state of affairs in the Land of Disenchantment that probably best explains Miss Martinez’s rise.

While the state unemployment rate has doubled from 4 percent to 8.2 percent in the past two years, the biggest area of dissatisfaction focuses on current Gov. Bill Richardson, whose political free-fall is nothing short of breathtaking.

Four years ago, Mr. Richardson was re-elected to a second term with nearly 69 percent of the vote. But while Miss Martinez has jumped out to an early lead on Democrat Diane Denish, the Journal poll showed just 33 percent of likely voters approved of the job Mr. Richardson is doing. What happened?

Since his re-election in 2006, charges of mismanagement, accusations of cronyism and “pay to play” allegations have rocked the Richardson administration. In light of those charges, Mr. Richardson had to withdraw as President Obama’s nominee as secretary of commerce.

During Mr. Richardson’s high-flying first term, his administration increased state government nearly 50 percent. But the subsequent downturn in the energy sector (particularly in natural gas, of which New Mexico has abundant supplies) contributed to a massive budget shortfall that led to cutbacks and furloughs of state employees.

It all adds up to bad news for Mrs. Denish, who has served as lieutenant governor for nearly eight years. Miss Martinez never passes up an opportunity to link Mrs. Denish with Mr. Richardson.

“I think Republicans are going to try to hang Richardson around Denish’s neck and drown her with him,” says former Democratic legislator Max Coll.

Last month, Miss Martinez did exactly that - although with an inadvertent assist from Mr. Richardson.

During a gubernatorial debate on education, Miss Martinez pounded home the fact that New Mexico finished 49th in a survey of national education performance and reminded the audience of the state’s abysmal record of graduating just 60 percent of its high school students in 2008.

Mr. Richardson - who rarely appears at state functions these days - issued a news release the following morning, attacking Miss Martinez and defending his record.

Miss Martinez pounced, challenging the sitting governor to their own series of education debates. Mr. Richardson retreated, but the dust-up may have only reminded voters of a 2008 interview in which Mrs. Denish described herself as a “good, loyal soldier” to a governor who is now so unpopular.

In the meantime, Miss Martinez goes around the state advocating her own, full-throated brand of conservatism.

On immigration, for example, she opposes the state’s policy of granting driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, wants to stop communities like Santa Fe from declaring themselves “sanctuary cities” and seeks to end the practice of allowing illegal aliens to remain eligible for college scholarships funded through the state lottery.

Despite predictions that such stances only hurt Republicans among Hispanics, the Martinez campaign seems unfazed. In fact, the Journal poll showed that a solid 24 percent of Hispanic Democrats say they would cross over and vote for Miss Martinez in November.

What would a victory by a Hispanic Republican woman in a state that doesn’t have a single Republican in its congressional delegation signal to voters on a national level?

Miss Martinez pauses for a moment before saying, “I hope it would say that someone in New Mexico who happens to be Hispanic will fight for all of New Mexico. People are going to come first in our administration regardless of what part of the state they’re from and whatever their ethnic background.”

Rob Nikolewski covers New Mexico politics as the managing editor for the online political journal capitolreportnewmexico.com.

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