SANTA FE – Former CIA operative and political gadfly Valerie Plame’s bid for Congress was cut short in Tuesday’s primary election by attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, as New Mexico voters opted for familiar faces in House and Senate primaries.
Leger Fernandez invoked her New Mexico heritage and track record as an advocate for Native American communities and voting rights to win the nomination to the northern 3rd Congressional District, as U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján runs for U.S. Senate. Sen Tom Udall is retiring.
Meanwhile, Republican primary voters embraced a well-known former television weatherman, Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque, as their Senate nominee.
Former state Rep. Yvette Herrell won the GOP nomination for a second time to the southern 2nd Congressional District, setting up a rematch with Democrat U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of Las Cruces. Herrell ran as a Trump loyalist against petroleum executive and former lobbyist Claire Chase of Roswell, a first-time political candidate.
Leger Fernandez overcame six competitors including Plame in the 3rd District, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1.
In her first run for public office, Plame harnessed her fame as a former U.S. intelligence operative whose secret identity was exposed shortly after her diplomat husband disputed U.S. intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion. After that uproar, she had moved to Santa Fe to raise children – only to be cast as a relative newcomer in this year’s election by politician rivals, some tracing their local ancestry to the Spanish colonial era.
On the campaign trail, Plame emphasized her experience in speaking truth to power in Washington and her solidarity with people who feel betrayed by President Donald Trump.
But it wasn’t enough to overcome Leger Fernandez and her résumé of working on behalf of Native American communities that are bearing the burnt of the coronavirus pandemic. Progressive advocacy groups for female candidates such as Emily’s List embraced Leger Fernandez’s campaign, which won endorsements by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland.
“I think people in New Mexico and across the country are saying, ‘Oh, my God ... the federal government’s failure to live up to its obligations in Indian Country can result in death,’” Leger Fernandez said on Tuesday while awaiting election results. “It takes someone who has deep knowledge of working on those issues to elevate those issues.”
Ronchetti, the former newscaster, defeated anti-abortion activist and Navajo Nation member Elisa Martinez of Albuquerque and professor Gavin Clarkson of Las Cruces. The Libertarian Party is fielding Bob Walsch in the Senate race.
Ronchetti ran a campaign with upbeat slogans about the future and highlighted his support of Trump’s border wall in visits to the area.
The coronavirus pandemic did not stand in the way of voter turnout, as the popularity over absentee balloting soared.
Overall statewide voting exceeded 375,000, over the combined 2016 presidential primary turnout of about 320,000, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Absentee ballots accounted for about 250,000 votes.
Uncontested in the primary, Luján hailed the heavy turnout as a victory in itself.
“As our country grapples with persistent inequality, exercising our right to vote is a pivotal part of bringing about much-needed change,” he said in a statement.
Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination for president in New Mexico, while Trump also won his party’s statewide nomination to pursue re-election.
Hillary Clinton beat Trump by about 8 percentage points in the 2016 statewide vote, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pledged her support to Biden this year.
Trump insisted during a rally last year in Rio Rancho that New Mexico was within Republicans’ reach. With no active opposition, Biden is already the Democratic Party’s presumed nominee.
Three contenders vied for the GOP nomination in the 3rd District. They included Navajo Nation member Karen Evette Bedonie of Mexican Springs, environmental engineer Alexis Johnson of Santa Fe and former Santa Fe County commissioner Harry Montoya.
Democrats have monopolized the 3rd Congressional District with the exception of one special election, starting with former Gov. Bill Richardson in 1982.
In New Mexico’s metropolitan 1st Congressional District, former police detective Michelle Garcia Holmes won the Republican nomination to take on Haaland. The compact district overlapping Albuquerque hasn’t been represented by a Republican since 2009.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said GOP federal and state candidates are well-positioned to win over moderate voters on issues of gun control, late-term abortion and overspending in state government.
Associated Press reporter Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report from Santa Fe.