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Why the Dem's big win in New Mexico's special election matters

Republicans saw New Mexico's congressional special election as an opportunity to test a specific message ahead of the 2022 races. That test failed.

Headed into yesterday's congressional special election in New Mexico, the conventional wisdom said state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D) was likely to defeat state Sen. Mark Moores (R) and fill the U.S. vacancy left by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. What was likely to matter as much as the outcome was the margin.

As it turns out, the contest was even less competitive than expected. The New York Times reported overnight:

Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat, won a landslide victory in a special House election in New Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the seat previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and easily turning back a Republican effort to make the race a referendum on rising crime in the Albuquerque-based district. Just after midnight Eastern time, Ms. Stansbury, a state representative, had captured 60 percent of the vote, while her Republican rival, Mark Moores, had won 36 percent.

To put the margin in perspective, President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in this district last fall by 23 points, while Deb Haaland, in the same cycle and on the same ballot, won her 2020 re-election bid by more than 16 points. Republicans believed if they could keep Stansbury's margin of victory below these thresholds, it would offer the party some proof of momentum after having lost control of Congress and the White House.

To that end, Mark Moores and his GOP allies focused aggressively on crime, "defund the police" rhetoric, and the idea that Democrats intend to close federal prisons and have dangerous criminals walking the streets. It was demagogic nonsense, but Republicans believed this was the message that would make the congressional special election close.

The pitch failed spectacularly. Stansbury appears to have won by an even larger margin in New Mexico's 1st than Biden did.

Politico reported last week that both parties were using this race "to test their messaging" ahead of next year's midterm cycle. With this in mind, the Democratic candidate focused her message on addressing infrastructure, climate change, drought, and food insecurity, while the GOP candidate focused his message on accusing his opponent of being effectively pro-crime.

A FiveThirtyEight analysis added yesterday, "[I]f Moores exceeds expectations, Republicans may conclude that attacking Democrats over police reform is a winning strategy and adapt their 2022 playbook accordingly. Similarly, Democrats — many of whom already believe the 'defund the police' movement hurt them in 2020 — may grow warier of publicly supporting progressive criminal-justice reforms."

Stansbury's landslide win pushes all of that aside. If this was an opportunity for the parties to test their messaging, Republicans should probably come away from the contest realizing that their test didn't work.

Presumably, GOP officials can now shift their focus to other elements of their governing vision, but at this point, it's not at all clear what that might be. On the contrary, it remains a post-policy party that has no governing vision at all.

As a practical matter, the obvious benefit for Democrats is that their painfully narrow margin in the U.S. House will now grow by one member -- and on Capitol Hill right now, every member counts. But the less obvious benefit for Democrats is that their Republican rivals don't appear to have any idea what to say in potentially competitive contests.