Reading the Tea Leaves in the NM-01 Special Election

On Tuesday, Democrat state Rep. Melanie Stansbury cruised to victory in the special election to fill the Albuquerque-based House seat of former Democratic Rep. (and now Interior Secretary) Deb Haaland. That Stansbury would win this seat was never really in doubt. Instead, the bigger question was whether she'd be able to match Haaland's (16 points) and Joe Biden's (23 points) 2020 margins of victory. Anything less would raise Republican hopes (and Democrats fears) of a Democratic 'enthusiasm' gap for the upcoming midterms: a clear sign that Democrats will struggle to motivate their base without Trump on the ballot or in the White House. 

Instead, Stansbury exceeded both Haaland and Biden's vote share, taking 60 percent to 36 percent for Republican state Sen. Mark Moores. Democrats also took heart in the fact that Moores' attempt to paint Stansbury as soft on crime (attacks that many Democrats felt were very effective in 2020) fell flat this time around. A big reason these attacks didn’t work, say many Democrats was the Stansbury campaign’s decision to run ads highlighting her crime-fighting bonafides and featuring law enforcement officials. In other words, Stansbury didn’t allow these attacks to go unanswered as many House Democrats did back in 2020. Even so, the fact that a “defund the police”  attack failed to get traction in an overwhelmingly blue district doesn't mean it won’t be successful in a more competitive district. 

But, Martha McKenna, Stansbury's media consultant, told me that Stansbury's win was as much about her decision to go on offense on the American Rescue Plan (aka COVID stimulus) as it was to fend off Republican attacks about her being soft on crime. The Stansbury campaign hit Moores for taking $2M in PPP funding for his business, even as he opposed the package that passed Congress. Democrats, she told me, need to be as aggressive as possible in going after Republicans who oppose this program which remains quite popular.  

Democrats also have to feel good that the grassroots donor energy that filled the campaign coffers of many longshot Democratic candidates in 2017-18, has not (yet?) appeared for Republicans. While Moores was the first up on TV, Stansbury ultimately outspent him in the last month of the campaign by an almost 10-1 margin. 

Even so, Republicans have little reason to despair. Republicans only need to net five seats to take the majority in 2022. They don't NEED to win in districts as Democratic as this. All they need to do is knock off a combination of the Democrats who sit in Trump districts (currently 7) and those who took less than 55 percent in the last election (currently at 40). That's a pretty big pool in which to fish.