Across the U.S., pundits are talking about a possible blue wave. One of the places they’re watching is southern New Mexico. The 2nd Congressional District traditionally votes red. But this year’s race looks more competitive than usual.
Sue Presslar is a proud Democrat. But that wasn’t always the case. She grew up in West Texas, in the 60s.
“At that time there was no such thing as liberals and conservatives,” she says. “It was church-going people and hippies.”
And Presslar, she was a church-goer. That changed near the end of the Vietnam War.
“I remember sitting watching the TV and Nixon talking about how we won, and there’s people frantically trying to get out of the embassy into the helicopters to leave,” Presslar says. “And a light bulb went off and I thought ‘oh my God, Jane Fonda was right!’ And from that point on, I never looked back.”
Presslar sits on a folding chair at the Democratic Party office in Alamogordo. There’s a big paper mache donkey with a blue tinsel crown propped up beside her. Presslar moved here decades ago, and volunteers with the party. Nevertheless, “most of my friends are Republicans,” she says.
New Mexico’s second congressional district - which covers the southern half of the state - is reliably red. But this lonely liberal might have reason to hope.
“What Donald Trump has done is to get more deeply rooted in what his base supports and that has a more polarizing effect,” says Christa Slaton, who teaches government at New Mexico State University. “So it’s made some of these elections competitive elections which normally would not be the least bit competitive at all, because he’s alienated some of his own party supporters. He’s alienated some independents. He’s polarizing some women.”
Now, Slaton says, “this is considered one of the toss-up districts.”
This congressional district is huge, the fifth largest in the country. It includes chile fields, oil wells and military bases. The Democratic party is investing real resources here, for the first time in years.
Nayomi Valdez is Regional Director for the state’s Democratic Party.
“So I worked Congressional District 2 in 2016 and at that point I was the only organizer on the ground,” she says. “So to give you some perspective this time around we have 15 offices statewide. Five of them are in CD2.”
And they have lots of organizers on the ground.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on Xochitl Torres Small, a water rights lawyer and former staffer for Senator Tom Udall. She’s running as an independent-minded moderate. Her campaign ads emphasize person over party and play up her appeal to Republicans. In a recent ad, she loads and shoots a hunting rifle.
Her opponent, Yvette Herrell, a real estate broker and state representative, hews closely to President Trump’s agenda. She supports the border wall and wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
At this point, Torres Small has outraised Herrell three to one. And the Cook Political Report calls this race a toss-up.
But Christa Slaton, with New Mexico State University, has her doubts.
“I would suggest that if the Democrats win this one, there’s gonna be really big blue wave, because I think this is one of the tougher nuts to crack,” Slaton says.
No matter the result, this is an historic election. Whoever wins will be the first Congresswoman to represent southern New Mexico.