ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is working her way through a bustling downtown farmers market -- stopping every few feet to shake hands, introduce herself and ask for votes in the 1st District Democratic congressional primary.
Along the way on this pleasant Saturday, she also pets a half-dozen dogs, does a few dance steps to the music of an acoustic guitar trio and gives out the occasional hug.
During the hour she spends at the Albuquerque Downtown Growers Market, with early voting already under way ahead of the June 5 primary, a number of Lujan Grisham's would-be constituents let the candidate know her ad blitz is getting their attention -- even if it hasn't yet locked up their votes.
As Lujan Grisham approaches the Heidi's Raspberry Farm stand, which sells raspberry jam, owner Heidi Eleftheriou says: "I recognize you from the TV commercials."
Lujan Grisham was the first of the three Democratic candidates on the air in the local television market. Her ads have focused on her work as former director of the state's Agency on Aging, as well as her stance in support of abortion rights and endorsements from the Albuquerque Journal and The Alibi, an alternative weekly publication.
But whether those ads do more than give Lujan Grisham name recognition remains to be seen.
Echoing several other merchants and market shoppers, Eleftheriou tells E&E Daily that she has been supporting state Sen. Eric Griego (D), a hero to environmentalists and progressives, but is now considering Lujan Grisham. Former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez (D) is also seeking the nomination to replace Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), who is making a bid for the state's open Senate seat.
"I'm about supporting women," Eleftheriou said, but she added she wants to read more on the contest before she casts a ballot.
Albuquerque resident Carol Alley, who is gathering signatures at the market to oppose a local zoning change, likewise said she has donated to Griego but is "still not 100 percent" a little more than a week from Election Day.
"I'm liking some of the things she's saying," Alley said. "She has been talking about women's rights and protecting the middle class."
It's that kind of consideration that has propelled Lujan Grisham to contender status in recent polling in the contest.
A survey released Sunday by the Albuquerque Journal found Griego and Lujan Grisham in a dead heat, receiving 33 percent each, followed by Chavez with 20 percent. Undecided voters made up 14 percent of the poll.
That survey, conducted by Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., included 413 Democratic primary voters, some of whom had already voted in the contest. The poll's margin of error was 4.8 points.
Those numbers echoed a recent Manzano Strategies poll commissioned by the political website New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan, which surveyed more than 700 likely Democratic voters and found Lujan Grisham with nearly 35 percent to Griego's nearly 34 percent. Chavez scored 22 percent in the survey, which had a 3.62-point margin of error.
Lujan Grisham attributed the surge to her campaign's focus on building a staff and its fundraising operation.
"We had a really robust strategy," Grisham told E&E Daily, noting that she did not have the highest name recognition among the trio of candidates when she joined the race. "What happened really, I think, is that we were the sleeper."
She added, "They weren't paying attention, but we were paying attention. ... Voters were paying attention." Lujan Grisham trails in fundraising but still managed to raise more than $600,000 and reported $122,000 in the bank ahead of the primary. She also loaned her campaign $35,000, which she carries as debt.
Griego leads the money chase with $850,000 raised through mid-May, but he had the least cash on hand with $87,000 at that time. Chavez raised $645,000 and had the highest cash on hand total in mid-May with $168,000 in reserve. He also carried a $15,000 debt from loans made to his campaign.
Based in Albuquerque, the 1st District was held by Republicans for 40 years until Heinrich won an open-seat race. Now it is in the "leans Democratic" category, and the winner of Tuesday's primary will be favored over the near-certain Republican nominee, former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, who has been running a lackluster campaign so far -- which is why the primary has become so bitter in its final days.
Settling old scores
Later that same Saturday in the East Nob Hill neighborhood, near the University of New Mexico, the autodial effort at the Chavez campaign headquarters is in full swing with volunteers racking up more than 100,000 calls just a day earlier.
"We're in the final days of this deal, and it's as close as can be," Chavez acknowledges in a mid-day pep talk to a dozen or so staffers and volunteers, some of whom are dressed in red "Team Chavez" T-shirts. "It looks a lot like what we thought it would look like. Unfortunately, as you guys who are on the phone know, these campaigns are very heavily centered around money."
He adds, "Our challenge is to stay focused on what we're doing and make sure we pull the votes out one at a time."
But Chavez does not shy away from criticizing his competitors, either, taking aim at the number of out-of-state donors who have contributed to the Griego campaign, while claiming the majority of funds he raised in the previous six weeks came from New Mexican donors.
"We did it with good old-fashioned New Mexico money," said Chavez, who served as executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability after his last term as mayor.
In an interview with E&E Daily after his meeting with staff, Chavez, who began the contest with high name recognition -- he served three terms as the city's mayor before he was defeated for a fourth term in 2009 and earlier was a state senator and the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor -- dismisses recent polling.
"We've saved every resource we had for the final push," said Chavez, who received former President Clinton's endorsement in mid-May. He has also won the support of Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers, TED Conference founder Richard Saul Wurman, former Vice President Walter Mondale and several animal rights organizations.
The former city official, seated at a desk in his campaign's reception area, also doesn't hesitate to criticize his competition, pointing to recent media reports that have highlighted mishaps by both Griego and Lujan Grisham.
The Albuquerque Journal recently reported Bernalillo County judges issued 11 arrest warrants for Griego between 2000 and 2007 after he failed to appear in court for traffic tickets or did not register for court-ordered driver's school.
The newspaper also reported that Lujan Grisham failed to pay her county property taxes on time for seven of the last 10 years, although she did not have any outstanding taxes at the time of its report.
During his speech to his staff, Chavez notes that Sierra Club officials had arrived to fete Griego with a pre-primary day rally, criticizing the group with which he had tangled as mayor in a five-year dispute involving the San Juan-Chama Water Project, which provides water from the Rio Grande to Albuquerque and other cities.
"They can have their celebration today, and we can celebrate that they were unsuccessful stopping water to the city of Albuquerque," Chavez said.
Environmental advocates, including the Sierra Club, sued the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation over the project in 1999. The groups argued the project violated the Endangered Species Act because the bureau failed to divert water from the cities to maintain adequate river levels for the endangered silvery minnow.
A settlement agreement struck in 2005 created a 30,000-acre-feet reserve in the Abiquiu Reservoir, a dammed-up part of the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico, a major tributary of the Rio Grande, for environmental uses.
Asked what issue could turn the election in his favor, Chavez again takes aim at Griego, echoing arguments made by Lujan Grisham in a recent debate that Griego has seen passage of only one of more than 50 bills he has sponsored in the Legislature. Chavez warms to the topic -- Griego, after all, unsuccessfully ran against him in the 2005 mayoral election, so the two have a history.
"It's going to turn on the fact that Eric Griego hasn't gotten a single thing done in his career," Chavez asserted.
Rallying the base
Inside an eclectic building in the Barelas neighborhood that once served as a theater space, Griego is in the middle of a stump speech to volunteers and supporters attending the Sierra Club rally, and he's being upstaged.
In the midst of his speech discussing his childhood and extolling himself as an "FDR Democrat," Griego's young son, Lucas, beelines across the room to reach his father, who lifts him up.
"That's why I'm running, for him," Griego continued before being interrupted by his son, in his arms, who squealed: "Running for Congress!"
The antics get a laugh from the three dozen or so volunteers and visitors gathered in Griego's campaign headquarters a few blocks south of downtown.
Sierra Club President Robin Mann, who spent several days in New Mexico, addressed the crowd earlier, touting the contest as "one of the key races in the country," as Democrats look to hold onto the seat.
"He's a demonstrated leader on issues that really matter to New Mexicans and the people in the 1st District. ... We are in need of more progressive leaders in Congress," Mann told the crowd. "It's so clear that this is just an essential race."
Despite the district's historic tilt toward the GOP until Heinrich's victory four years ago, Griego, who has campaigned as the most liberal of the Democratic candidates, disputes suggestions that his positions will make him more vulnerable in the general election.
Griego cites Heinrich's record of voting with his party 91 percent of the time in the 112th Congress and points to Republican ex-Rep. Heather Wilson's narrow wins in the district during her 10-year tenure.
"There might have been a time when that narrative was correct," Griego said. "If you believe the myth, then in 2010 we should have lost."
Griego has racked up endorsements from groups like Democracy for America, a liberal organization affiliated with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D); Daily Kos, the liberal political news site; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
"We need to send Democrats up there who are going to be much more outspoken and solid on our core values. And that's been the problem," Griego said. "It hasn't just been that we've been in the minority. It has been a few, not the majority, but a few, I call them, squishy Democrats."
But Griego acknowledges Lujan Grisham's gains have come from her focus on women's rights issues, including abortion, in recent weeks.
"There are real serious concerns among women that conservative Republicans are really going against reproductive rights," Griego said. He has sought to promote his own record on those issues, which he asserted is more extensive, including unveiling a video of female state lawmakers and officials touting his candidacy.
Griego extended his criticism of moderate Democrats to Lujan Grisham, disparaging his closest competitor as "a deal-maker; she is a negotiator."
As the candidates scramble to define themselves -- and their opponents -- they'll know in a matter of days what messages the voters have been absorbing.
"I see the polls are saying that Eric is in good shape," Mann said. "But we do know this is all about turnout."
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