By MORGAN LEE
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Mark Ronchetti has won the Republican primary for governor to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The former television meteorologist on Tuesday defeated four other candidates including state Rep. Rebecca Dow.
Ronchetti’s campaign emphasized concerns about crime, illegal immigration, high rates of unemployment and underperforming schools.
In a primary-night victory speech, the Republican nominee took swipes at political elites and big government and blasted the governor’s leadership on public education and criminal justice issues.
“Sadly in this state it’s easier to be a criminal than a cop — that will change,” said Ronchetti, pledging to restore police immunity from prosecution. “We have a governor that has decided that she will look out for the best interests of the elites in Santa Fe instead of you.”
Separately, the Democratic nomination for attorney general went to Raúl Torrez, a second-term district attorney for Albuquerque and its outskirts.
Torrez defeated State Auditor Brian Colón to vie in an open race against Republican attorney and U.S. Marine veteran Jeremy Michael Gay of Gallup.
New Mexico has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors since the early 1980s. An incumbent governor last lost reelection in 1994.
The November election for New Mexico governor will be a test of Democratic resolve in the most Hispanic state in the nation — an oil-producing region with enduring currents of Catholicism and a strong culture of gun ownership.
The GOP in 2020 flipped a congressional district along the U.S. border with Mexico with the election of Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a firm defender of former President Donald Trump.
Ronchetti has pledged to deploy 150 state law enforcement personnel to the remote international border with Mexico to combat illegal migration and drug and human trafficking. The proposal echoes National Guard deployments by Republican governors in Arizona and Texas.
In a nod to his days as a TV personality, Ronchetti cracked some jokes. He ridiculed the governor for lavish public spending at the governor’s mansion on premium beef and liquor, contrasting that with his own offer of chips, salsa and a cash bar for supporters on election night. Ronchetti also vowed to “unleash New Mexico energy” in a reference to oil production in southeastern New Mexico.
An incumbent governor hasn’t lost election since 1994. And Republicans have faltered in a string of statewide elections, ceding control of every statewide elected office to Democrats, including the five-seat state Supreme Court.
Since taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led Legislature have enacted reforms to ensure access to abortion, expand government oversight of guns and expand police accountability by lifting immunity from prosecution for misconduct.
The Republican primary was marked by unfettered support for an oil industry anchored in the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico.
The incumbent governor has walked a fine line on the environment with climate change initiatives that rein in methane pollution from oilfield infrastructure, phase out coal-fired power plants and mandate new renewable energy investments without restricting oil production. New Mexico last year surpassed North Dakota in 2021 to become the nation’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas.
Lujan Grisham has harnessed a surge in state government income to underwrite teacher raises, offer free college education to in-state students, expand preschool and bolster Medicaid coverage across a state with high rates of poverty.
In response to inflation, the state is sending out staggered payments of up to $1,500 per household between June and August.
New Mexico’s most recent Republican governor was Susana Martinez, an El Paso native with family ties in Mexico who served as a district attorney before winning an open race to succeed termed-out Gov. Bill Richardson.
First-term congresswomen were seeking reelection to New Mexico’s three congressional districts, without primary challengers.
In the 2nd District of southern New Mexico, Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez won the Democratic nomination to challenge Herrell. He defeated rural physician Darshan Patel.
In the 1st District that includes most of Albuquerque and rural communities to the south, the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury was won by former police Detective Michelle Garcia Holmes.
Holmes ran for the same congressional seat in 2020 and was defeated by Democrat Deb Haaland, now serving as U.S. Interior secretary.
In other statewide races, former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya won the Democratic nomination for state treasurer, defeating former Magistrate Judge and Treasury official Heather Benavidez. Montoya will compete against former Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya in an open race to replace termed out State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg.
The Democratic nomination for state auditor went to utilities regulator Joseph Maestas, an elected member of the Public Regulation Commission. He’ll confront Libertarian write-in candidate Robert Vaillancourt in a general election without a Republican contender.
In Tuesday’s vote, new same-day registration provisions allowed unaffiliated voters to participate if they registered with a major party — even briefly.
New Mexico still follows a closed primary system that restricts participation to voters registered with a major party, who cannot switch parties once early voting begins.