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New Mexico governor revs up campaign for re-election

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is preparing for the first major rally of her re-election campaign. Invitations to watch the Thursday evening event went out to campaign supporters, touting the Democratic governor’s accomplishments on issues from tax policy to recreational cannabis since taking office in January 2019. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, file)

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is preparing for the first major rally of her re-election campaign.

Invitations to watch the Thursday evening event went out to campaign supporters, touting the Democratic governor’s accomplishments on issues from tax policy to recreational cannabis since taking office in January 2019.

But Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet officials are confronting criticism about an estimated $250 million overpayment of unemployment benefits amid limited oversight of fraudulent claims, the use of an auto-deleting messaging app at the state’s child welfare agency and missed deadlines for the state to receive federal education funds.

The governor also has been lambasted over the past year for her response to the pandemic, which has included some of the most stringent public health orders in the nation. Critics have ranged from business owners to parents concerned about the loss of classroom time and access to sports and other extracurricular activities.

Early contenders for the Republican nomination to take on Lujan Grisham in 2022 include Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block.

The last incumbent governor to lose re-election in New Mexico was Democrat Bruce King, who was defeated in 1994 by then-Republican Gary Johnson.

“We’ve slashed taxes for working families, delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of pandemic relief for small businesses, boosted school funding as part of our moonshot dream, legalized cannabis and so much more,” Lujan Grisham said in the email invitation.

Lujan Grisham signed legislation this year that expands two kinds of tax benefits for working and low-income families, along with a one-time $600 income tax credit or rebate to low-income workers. That relief is estimated at about $185 million in its first year.

She also signed legislation to raise the surtax on health insurance premiums by about $150 million annually. Some of that money will be used to help lower monthly health insurance premiums for low-income individuals and employees of small businesses.

Newly signed marijuana reforms will establish legal cannabis sales by April 1, 2022. Starting June 29, people 21 and older can legally possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

State general fund spending on public schools will increase by 7.3%, or $234 million, for the fiscal year starting July 1.

There is no indication that Lujan Grisham will have Democratic challengers for her party’s nomination.

The state Democratic Party is riding high after a lopsided win in Tuesday’s special congressional election to fill an Albuquerque-based seat vacated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Democrat Melanie Stansbury beat Republican state Sen. Mark Moores by about 24 percentage points.

However, political observers noted that the outcome in a district that has been controlled by Democrats for more than a decade won’t automatically translate to the rest of the state, where conservative Hispanic Democrats, independent voters and rural residents can swing elections.

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said historical trends also point to more Republican governors being elected nationally during the midterm and that presidential approval ratings and Lujan Grisham’s own approval among New Mexico residents will play a role.

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen there,” Atkeson said. “In the next six months, we could see some real inflation or we could have a crisis in manufacturing and depending on how long that takes to run its course, those big picture items could be very harmful to her.”

Atkeson also acknowledged frustration about the pandemic, noting that the pace of economic recovery will likely be a consideration for voters next year if the effects continue to linger.