RIO RANCHO, N.M. – For weeks, Carrie Hamblen has knocked on doors, shook hands at festivals, and passed out campaign material in her effort to unseat Sen. Mary Kay Papen – one of the most powerful Democratic incumbents in the New Mexico Senate.
But the Las Cruces native recently was forced to abandoned all person-to-person contact with voters thanks to new state-ordered restrictions to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. That has prevented her from building up name recognition before a June Democratic primary where liberal challengers had hoped to defeat some of the state’s moderate Democratic lawmakers they say are blocking early education reform and recreational marijuana proposals.
“It has changed the face of the campaign,” said Hamblen, the CEO and president of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce. “Now, we have to be creative.”
Across the state, Democratic primary challengers are having to rethink efforts to reach out to voters as they seek to oust incumbent lawmakers in New Mexico. They are making more targeted personal phone calls, holding virtual town hall meetings on Facebook and texting potential voters directly to combat the name ID that usually gives the edges to incumbents.
“I’m writing a personal letter to voters,” said Melissa Ontiveros, 45, a community organizer who is challenging Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a 59-year-old moderate Democrat who has represented his Las Cruces district since 2012. “I want to tell the story of who I am and why I’m running.”
After her letter, Ontiveros intends to connect with voters on social media and explain why she supports measures to allow recreational marijuana in New Mexico to fund early childhood education programs – something Cervantes has staunchly opposed.
“I’m calling people more. I’m sending more personal notes,” said Edwina Cisneros, who is challenging state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, one of the state’s more liberal members but who has faced allegations about her state residency. “I’m upping my social media presence.”
It’s unclear how effective the social distancing strategies will be. Most Democratic voters in the state’s closed primary system tend to be older, and many live in rural areas where broadband internet access and cell service is limited.
In 2016, overall voter turnout was nearly 34% of those eligible to vote in the primaries. Roughly 37% of registered Democratic voters and about 27 % of registered Republicans cast ballots, according to results.
But Hamblen said New Mexico voters are more connected online than ever before. She said incumbency is not such an advantage now as it’s been in a past – especially among voters who are ready for new voices.
“A lot of people I’ve spoken with before the restrictions told me they didn’t even know Joseph Cervantes,” Ontiveros said, referring to her opponent. “They are about to get to know me.”
Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/russcontreras