Democratic Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday won election as New Mexico governor to succeed a two-term Republican amid simmering conflicts over struggling public schools and high poverty rates.
The reins of state government will pass from one Latina to another as termed-out Gov. Susana Martinez leaves office. Lujan Grisham defeated Republican Rep. Steve Pearce in a campaign focused on expanding preschool education, lowering crime rates and expanding an oil-dependent economy into new industries.
Republicans in New Mexico had little to celebrate. Democratic candidates won re-election to secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer — and defeated an appointed Republican state auditor. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep Ben Ray Lujan were re-elected. The congressional seat vacated by Lujan Grisham will be filled by fellow Democrat Debra Haaland, who defeated Republican former state lawmaker Janice Arnold-Jones on Tuesday.
Lujan Grisham, a 59-year-old former state health secretary, has been a leading critic in Congress of President Donald Trump's policies on immigration.
Her victory opens the door for initiatives to authorize recreational marijuana, to institute gun safety measures such background checks on private sales and to overhaul funding for public education and preschool. New Mexico has a medical cannabis program but penalizes recreational use.
Lujan Grisham vowed to push for new investments in solar and wind energy and has pledged to comply with a court order to help poor and minority students.
"We're going to show every other state in the nation what happens when you respect your educators," said Lujan Grisham, who adlibbed her victory speech as a teleprompter malfunctioned.
Pearce campaigned for Trump in 2016 but barely mentioned the president this year in a state that shares a border with Mexico and where Hillary Clinton won by an 8 percent margin.
He congratulated Lujan Grisham in a phone call and a tweet.
"The race didn't turn out like we hoped," Pearce wrote. "New Mexico's best days are ahead of us."
Neither gubernatorial candidate backed Trump's plans for a border wall that already is under construction on New Mexico's southern edge. They emphasized other tactics against smuggling and illegal immigration, such as cameras, sensors and more effective enforcement and policies.
Martinez, who never endorsed or campaigned for Pearce, is prohibited from running for a third consecutive term. She broke with most Republican governors to expand Medicaid in her first term and won re-election in a landslide, but her popularity waned amid limited progress toward improving public education and reducing poverty.
Democrats also sought to expand their majority control of the Legislature. Democrats last held unified control of the Legislature and governor's office in 2010 under Gov. Bill Richardson.
On the campaign trail, Lujan Grisham touted her background leading state health agencies under three governors, both Democratic and Republican. She also highlighted her past ownership role in a consulting firm that runs a statewide high-risk insurance pool for the severely ill — as Pearce, in a series of attack ads, condemned the arrangement as self-serving and corrupt.
Lujan Grisham will inherit a bulging budget surplus for the coming fiscal year — an estimated at $1.2 billion in government income beyond current annual spending obligations of $6.3 billion from the state general fund.
Most of the budget windfall is linked to the state's oil and natural gas sector, whose fortunes fluctuate wildly with the gyrations of international oil markets — complicating efforts to make sustained investments in teacher salaries.
The governor's office and incoming Legislature will confront pressure from the judiciary to shore up educational opportunities for minority and low-income students. A recent court order described widespread violations of constitutional rights to an adequate education, responding to lawsuits from parents and school districts.
Lujan Grisham plans to drop the state's legal appeal and work with the Legislature to provide more resources to public schools.
A three-term congresswoman, Lujan Grisham traces her New Mexico family lineage back 12 generations to the Spanish-colonial era prior to U.S. acquisition of the region in the Mexican American War. Martinez, by contrast, is native of El Paso, Texas, who says her paternal grandparents migrated from Mexico.
Lujan Grisham, whose second last name derives from her deceased husband, has family ties to a prominent political family. Her second cousin Manuel Lujan Jr. served in Congress and as interior secretary starting in 1998 under President George H.W. Bush. U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who won a sixth term Tuesday, is a distant cousin by marriage.
Pearce, a 71-year-old Vietnam-era Air Force pilot and former oilfield entrepreneur from a conservative stronghold in the state's southeast, ran once previously for statewide office, losing an open Senate race in 2008 to Sen. Tom Udall.
In Pearce's southern congressional district, Republican state Rep. Yvette Herrell was competing against Democratic attorney Xochitl Torres Small in a close-fought race.