Second Congressional District Candidates Bring 2018 Lessons Into Their 2020 Rematch

Nov 3, 2020

New Mexico’s second congressional district race is a rematch of 2018, when Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small defeated Republican Yvette Herrell by fewer than 4,000 mostly absentee votes. This year, once again, the southern district could see a close race with absentee ballots playing an important role. KUNM caught up with the candidates the morning of Election Day to discuss lessons learned from 2018, and how they’re feeling the second time around. 

On the last day of a long election season, both U.S. House candidates were in good spirits. “I’m feeling energized by all the New Mexicans who have gotten involved directly in our democracy,” said Torres Small. “That is still ongoing today, getting all across the district and seeing lines of people waiting to vote.”

She had been on the road since early that morning. “I’ve been to Anthony and Sunland Park working to make sure people who requested an absentee ballot know that they can bring it to a polling location, they don’t have to wait in line,” she said. “That’s really important,” the congresswoman added, “because there are still quite a few ballots out there that have not been returned.”

Her challenger, Yvette Herrell, was also on the move. She was in Las Cruces this morning, which she said was “one of the areas of the district we want to perform well in.” She said she’d then be “going back over to Alamogordo.”

Herrell said she was excited that Election Day, and her rematch with Torres Small, was finally here. “We’ve worked very hard the last number of months, of course,” she said. “And you know, it’s kind of a ‘hurry up and wait’ thing right now.”   

An Albuquerque Journal poll last week showed Herrell leading Torres Small by just two percentage points, so they may have to wait a bit longer than candidates in other races to find out which of them will prevail. “I know it’s going to be exceptionally close. Potentially even closer than it was last time,” said Torres Small. “And that’s why I’m working hard now to make sure people take that time to go vote, and then make sure those voices are really heard.” 

Potentially adding to the wait time is the record number of absentee ballots cast during early voting, with even more being dropped off and delivered by mail Tuesday. 

And while the absentee voter turnout this year is unprecedented, a tight race decided by ballots tallied after election night is not.

Two years ago, Torres Small trailed Herrell on election night, but pulled ahead after more than 8,000 absentee ballots in Doña Ana County were tallied the next day. Herrell’s campaign went on to allege possible fraud and inspect the ballots, but in the end did not challenge the results. Herrell says her campaign brought a lot of lessons from 2018 into this year’s rematch. “You know, it was kind of ‘eyes wide open,’” Herrell said about her campaign’s approach this year. “And we have really worked hard not only to educate voters, poll watchers [and] challengers,” she said, “but also a more intricate internal ‘watch,’ if you will, in terms of the number of absentee ballots requested [and] the ones returned,” she said. “We just keep praying about it,” said Herrell. “And obviously we want the results to be a little different than they were two years ago.” 

After the 2018 election, Herrell’s attorney wrote in a letter to the Secretary of State that absentee ballots are “uniquely susceptible to irregularities (both mistakes and fraud).” Trump, who endorsed Herrell, has repeatedly made false and misleading statements about mail-in voting being ripe for fraud. Still, Herrell says she trusts absentee ballots. “Well, I have to to some degree,” she said, “because it’s part of the voting process.” “However,” she added, “there’s always concern if the ballots are going to have all the required information that’s in state statute: the name, address, signature [and] last four digits of the social security number.” 

She says the work of county clerks and poll challengers, as well as increased awareness of the requirements among voters, helps her feel more confident the ballots will be valid. “Overall,” she said, “I’ve got to trust in the voter and trust in the process.” 

Trump has also criticized vote-counting after Election Day, describing it to reporters on Sunday as a “terrible thing,” according to NPR, though it’s completely normal. Torres Small says she’s proud that her district took the necessary time to get the count right two years ago and that it’s just part of how our elections work. “It will take the time it takes to tabulate the results so that we can make sure of the integrity of our democracy,” she said. “And it’s important that we all respect that.”

Herrell says not finishing the count on Tuesday night is understandable because of the record turnout. “But I am just no different than any other voter,” she said. “You want to kind of know the results of these races the day-of. But,” she added, “I think most of the clerks around the state are doing a great job and trying to get those tabulated right away.”

Regardless of who wins or when we find out, the next representative of New Mexico’s southern congressional district will make history – joining congresswomen from the central and northern districts to make up the largest ever all-woman delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.