Welcome to the eighth edition of District Rundown, coming just a week and a half before election day. Last week’s publication touched on Indiana’s 1st district, an excellent late-breaking GOP pick-up opportunity currently rated TOSSUP for Split Ticket. Today’s analysis heads westward to one of the sunbelt’s most competitive congressional districts: New Mexico’s 2nd. The recent decision to move this seat into the LEANS REPUBLICAN column will be explained at the end of this piece.
New Mexico’s 2nd district (Biden +5.9) is the most competitive seat in the Land of Enchantment despite getting more Democratic in redistricting. The old seat voted for Trump by 12 points in 2020, with the former President’s vote share rising from 50 to 55% between his two elections. But the latest iteration, almost 18 points bluer, is deceptively different. To contextualize our analysis, let’s break down how the district’s demography and geography actually changed.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
When looking at predominant demographic groups throughout the Sun Belt, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Hispanics. The old 2nd district, which included all of New Mexico’s southeastern Little Texas region, had a Hispanic voting population (CVAP) of just 51%. Redistricting removed all or part of the heavily-Republican counties of Chaves, Lincoln, and Roosevelt from the seat while splitting Lea and Eddy in two.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
These modifications reduced the population of white and Hispanic voters who preferred the GOP in 2020. The new map replaces these red precincts with reliably-Democratic turf running through Albuquerque’s southwestern-extent. On net, this addition gives the district a higher Hispanic CVAP of 56% and makes its baseline partisanship significantly more Democratic.
Hispanics and whites don’t hold a monopoly on the 2nd’s ethnic breakdown though. The eastern half of Cibola county is home to an Acoma Pueblo reservation, providing enough Democratic support to outvote Republican turf around Grants.
In terms of district geography, the 2nd’s design differs noticeably from its predecessor. The omission of the northern half of Little Texas, a region that drove Republican margins through the ceiling here in 2020, marks a break with historical precedent. In fact, the 2nd has included all of these aforementioned counties since New Mexico was apportioned a 3rd district in 1982. Despite their effect on population distribution and partisanship, changes to the seat’s Bernalillo and Valencia County boundaries had little impact on its overall appearance.
When it comes to bases of support, Democrats derive most of their votes from Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties. Together they encompass all or part of the cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces. Both sections are majority-Hispanic and backed Joe Biden by a collective margin of about 22 points. Of the two, Doña Ana packs a bigger punch because most of Albuquerque is located in Melanie Stansbury’s 1st district. The counties make up 58% of the 2nd’s total population and accounted for 57% of its 2020 votes.
The Republican base predominantly comes from a mixture of conservative whites and Hispanics in Little Texas, New Mexico’s southeastern oil country. Although redistricting greatly diminished the region’s overall contribution to the 2nd’s baseline partisanship, the remaining Little Texas counties of Otero, Eddy, and Lea still hold weight for any GOP candidate; Trump won this portion of the district by a whopping 36 points in 2020. 18% of the seat’s total population resides in these three counties.
Those two groupings might be archetypes for each party’s base, but they aren’t all-encompassing by any means. Republicans, for example, net a decent amount of votes from Valencia County, the southernmost extent of the Albuquerque metropolitan area. Other parts of the district, like Grant (Biden +7) and Luna (Trump +10) counties, aren’t as collectively-populated but provide modest bases of support for both parties that cancel each other out to some extent.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
In terms of demographic voting patterns, Hispanics in Albuquerque vote quite differently from those in Little Texas. Split Ticket analyzed these tendencies late last year, determining that conservative Latinos in the rural southeast were more likely to prefer Republican candidates because of lower average levels of educational attainment, Protestant religiosity, and economic dependence on oil.
Between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Republicans did make inroads with Hispanics throughout the 2nd district. Improvements are distinctly visible in Las Cruces, southwestern Albuquerque, and the easternmost portion of Little Texas. While Split Ticket partner Armin Thomas did note that Democrats should maintain a credible statewide position thanks to conversions among college-educated whites, the party’s long-term foothold in the 2nd is uncertain if Republicans continue to gain ground with Latinos, especially those with less education.
The Republican candidate in the 2nd is Congresswoman Yvette Herrell. Originally a state representative from Alamogordo (Otero County), Herrell first ran for the House in 2018 when incumbent Steve Pearce retired. She lost a close race to Las Cruces Democrat Xochitl Torres-Small, claiming that the election was stolen. Two years later, Trump’s 12 point national margin was enough to carry Herrell over the line in a rematch.
Democrats nominated Gabe Vasquez, a former city councilor and aide to Senator Martin Heinrich from Las Cruces. Vasquez, who won the primary easily earlier this year, has worked in the fields of public relations and environmental conservation. He has never run for the House before, though his Las Cruces residency could help boost Democratic turnout to compete with Herell’s weakened Little Texas base.
The campaign in the 2nd heated up significantly in the last month, but Herrell’s messaging has not deviated from her strident attacks against President Joe Biden and the economic policies ushered in by the Democratic Congress. On paper, it seems unwise for an incumbent to employ such a strategy in a Biden-won congressional seat, even in a Republican-leaning year, but fundamental evidence suggests that economic issues like inflation resonate above all else with Republicans and Democrats, particularly Hispanics, in the 2nd district.
That’s part of the reason why national Republican groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) outspent their Democratic counterparts by $2.6 million in this seat according to the latest reports. Republicans intended heavy-investment to portray Vasquez as an out-of-touch progressive sympathetic to defunding the police and promoting environmentalism. The latter attack could be particularly-effective in the 2nd district, where oil is king for a large portion of the electorate.
Vasquez has depicted himself as a moderate, but national Democrats no longer seem as devoted to winning this district as they were earlier in the cycle.
Unlike most House seats on the competitive board, New York Times & Siena College actually polled the 2nd district. Split Ticket will provide takeaways on all four of their surveys in a separate article next week, but the numbers from New Mexico alone are important to the context of this article.
For one, the data show that economic issues outweighed social issues 47-38% for likely voters in the 2nd district. That’s an important figure to analyze post-Dobbs because it shows the continuing effects of educational polarization. Only 22% of the 2nd district’s sample had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the lowest educational attainment rate among the four seats polled by the partnership. These gaps explain why New Mexico’s 2nd is much more likely to end up in Republican hands than Kansas’s highly-educated 3rd district, despite similar 2020 partisanships.
Keeping education dynamics in mind helps explain the fervent Republicanism of medium-income Hispanics in Little Texas, as well as successful GOP inroads with Latino voters across the 2nd district. In other words, this seat’s presidential partisanship might be a bit misleading due to polarization exacerbated by the national environment. At a purely geographic and demographic level, the Democratic position is far more precarious.
No doubt, the NYT-Siena topline showed Vasquez leading 48-47% in what remains a close, highly-variable race. We simply believe that the inner workings of the survey suggest that the Democrats have probably reached their peak in the district. If most undecided voters break for Herrell as they have for other national Republicans elsewhere in the country, it would be enough for her to win.
When it comes to fundraising, Herrell and the Republicans hold an advantage. The GOP’s national groups easily outspent Democrats during the last period, blitzing the El Paso and Albuquerque media markets in an attempt to stifle Vasquez. In terms of internal data, Herrell has outraised her opponent by about $1 million. She holds a similar cash-on-hand advantage, with Vasquez spending most of his remaining funds to counter GOP attacks. National dollars might be worth less when compared to campaign expenditures, but they are difficult to overcome when employed en masse.
BENCHMARKS AND EXPECTATIONS
Split Ticket recently moved New Mexico’s 2nd district from TOSSUP to LEANS REPUBLICAN to reflect the Republicans’ improved position in generic ballot polling. While those changes had more to do with a predictable decline in the number of undecided voters than with a pure environmental shift, we have laid out multiple compelling reasons to favor Herrell that are independent from national conditions including incumbency, fundraising, and educational polarization.
Could Vasquez still win the 2nd? Certainly. It is a Biden-won seat after all, so the President’s 2020 coalition serves as a basic road map for any Democrat to follow. The key to reaching the finish line for Vasquez rests mainly on supercharging Hispanic turnout in urban areas like Albuquerque and Las Cruces while reducing Latino defections to the GOP overall.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org