In the redrawn 2nd Congressional District, a fierce fight is underway
The sun is setting in Truth or Consequences, and in the brightly colored courtyard of the Pelican Spa, complete with pelican mural, a few dozen members of the Democratic Party are gathered to meet candidates including Gabe Vasquez, who is running in the state's 2nd Congressional District.
He bounds up the mic. "Buenas tardes T or C! Buenas tardes Sierra County!" The crowd applauds.
Vasquez has worked in conservation, including for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, and as a city councilor in Las Cruces, as well as on U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich's team. He tells the crowd his grandfather, who came from Mexico, loved nearby Elephant Butte lake.
"We have to protect our water, we have to make sure our kids have clean air to breathe," he says. He also addresses immigration. This district includes the whole of the state's border with Mexico.
"We have to make sure that we have a well-funded immigration system that is fair, that is humane, that accepts asylum seekers," he tells the crowd. And then he urges them to get out the vote. Beating Republican incumbent Yvette Herrell isn't going to be easy
"I can tell you that in our latest poll, we are leading Yvette Herrell by 1%," he says.
It is a slim margin, and the race is set to be tight. The data website FiveThirtyEight has a sliding scale of congressional seats with those most likely to go red on one side and those most likely to go blue on the other. NM-02 hovers right in the middle, among the most competitive in the country.
But politicians and analysts think that the Democratic candidate does have an increased chance of winning here, after the state's three districts were redrawn following the 2020 census.
This 2nd District, which has usually (though not always) voted for a Republican representative in Congress, lost parts of the southeast of the state, known as the oil patch because of its location in the Permian Basin. It gained part of Albuquerque, including the South Valley, which is majority Hispanic and Democratic-leaning.
The district's voting-age population went from 51% to 56% Hispanic. The congressional redistricting bill was sponsored by, among others, state Senator Joe Cervantes, Democrat of Las Cruces, who tweeted that it reimagined a more united state, rural and urban.
When she signed the redrawn congressional map into law, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a press release: "We must honor the ideals of American democracy by doing everything we can to ensure a level playing field, reflecting what is unique about New Mexico."
But critics like Herrell, and some independent analysts, say the redistricting was a partisan move by a Democratic-led legislature.
The process of redrawing the political map following the 2020 census initially fell to a newly-created, nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Committee.
"It's a data-intensive, often laborious process of revising districts until they best comply with traditional redistricting principles," said Robert Rhatigan, who is the state demographer, and was on the committee.
He explained that the committee drew maps that reflected the census data and abided by laws calling for districts to have equal population size and for minority communities to be grouped together according to the Voting Rights Act.
After public input, he said three possible maps of the 2nd Congressional District were sent to the legislature, which accepted neither but passed a tweaked version of the one with the highest Hispanic population.
"So yes, in my opinion, there was a conscious effort to create this clear majority Hispanic district," he said, although he pointed out that the redrawing did leave the 3rd Congressional District, currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, overall more Republican-leaning.
In Truth or Consequences, members of the Sierra County Republican Party are confident that the county will vote Republican, but County Commissioner Jim Paxon fears conservative voices could be drowned out, district-wide.
"The old District Two was primarily agriculture, ranching and farming. And, of course, the oil patch over in the east side of the state. It has been fairly conservative," he said. "This redistricting to me was an attempt to dilute or take away from that influence."
The redrawn lines have attracted wider attention. Analyst David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report website called it "one of the most aggressive Democratic gerrymanders." A data analysis by The Economist found that New Mexico was the state with the greatest increase in partisan bias of congressional district plans toward Democrats following redistricting.
And when New Mexico Republicans went to court to ask a judge to stop the use of the redrawn map, the judge found there was a strong case that there was "a partisan gerrymander created in an attempt to dilute Republican votes." He ruled the redrawn map could be used this year, but did not exclude later challenges. Democrats have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.
For now, the polls show a close race. Yvette Herrell continues to endorse policies that appeal to her conservative base.
"We need to increase oil and gas production on federal lands, so that New Mexico’s school children have the funding they need for excellent educational opportunities," she said in a recent meeting of the House Oversight Committee. She called for fewer restrictions on water and forest use and has taken a hard line on border issues.
But she is also working harder to appeal to Hispanic voters. The Republican National Committee has opened two Hispanic outreach centers in the district - one in Las Cruces and one in Albuquerque. Herrell told KUNM that NM-02 is the only district in the country with two such centers at a September 25 event in the Albuquerque location.
"I think this is a great way to reach out and show everybody that we're wanting to work through the racial divides and be more inclusive with what we're trying to do not only as a campaign, but as a country," she said.
Her position is reflected in nationwide efforts among both parties to appeal to Hispanic voters, as analysts say some Hispanics are moving toward the Republican Party.
Democrats also held an event in the South Valley on September 18 at the Gutiérrez Hubbell House, with musical acts and a car show. Bernalillo County party chair Flora Lucero said she was confident the Democratic vote in the area would be strong.
"The South Valley is one of the oldest areas in the state," she said. "And it's been a strong Democratic stronghold for many years."
Gabe Vasquez also spoke at that event, addressing the crowd in Spanish and English and highlighting a humble upbringing.
"I represent a family that has dug their hands in the dirt and has fixed televisions and microwaves and set them out on the curb," on his route to success, he said. "And that is the sueño Américano."