Republicans Tuesday will decide whether a conservative activist with roots in American Indian Country, a longtime television meteorologist or a former Trump administration official will be their party’s candidate in New Mexico’s U.S. Senate race.
Elisa Martinez and Mark Ronchetti, both of Albuquerque, and Gavin Clarkson of Las Cruces, are on the ballot in the upcoming Republican U.S. Senate primary.
The winner of the primary will face Democrat Ben Ray Lujan, a six-term congressman from Santa Fe and assistant speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Libertarian Bob Walsh, also from Santa Fe.
The election for the seat received new attention from political observers and Republicans last year after Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, announced he would not seek re-election.
Following Udall’s revelation, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball — a website that analyzes and ranks U.S. Senate races — changed the site’s rating of the race from “safe Democrat” to the slightly less secure designation of “likely Democrat.”
“This should be a hold for Democrats, but it may take more time and money than if Udall, a strong incumbent, had decided to run for re-election,” an analysis about the ratings change on the website stated at the time.
Udall captured the seat for Democrats in 2008 after he ran for the seat in an open race following the retirement of Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, who held the seat for 36 years. Since then, no Republican has represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. The state’s five-member congressional delegation is composed entirely of Democrats.
However, Steve Pearce, who was Udall’s general election opponent in 2008 and is now chair of the Republican Party of New Mexico, sees an opening for the party.
“I believe there is a strong feeling here in the state that we can actually take that seat back,” Pearce said.
President Donald Trump has loomed large in the race, with the three candidates stating agreement with the 45th president on a host of issues ranging from deregulation to immigration, border security and the booming economy that he presided over pre-COVID-19.
However, a video of Ronchetti recently caused his opponents to question whether the former meteorologist truly supports the president.
In the video from March 2019, Ronchetti refers to Trump as “the orange one” while speaking to the crowd at a conference.
“I’m a conservative who used to be a Republican until the orange one. I’m afraid that has taken a part of my soul and that is not coming back any time soon,” Ronchetti said in the video.
The video was posted on the YouTube account of Clarkson, who accused Ronchetti of being a “never Trumper.”
Martinez responded by calling on Ronchetti to end the campaign.
Ronchetti said his remarks were meant as a joke that he should not have made.
“And I made a joke about the president and it is a joke that I shouldn’t have made,” he said.
He added the 14-second video was shortened and insists that he supports Trump, whose policies, he said, have worked for New Mexico and will help revive the economy in the wake of the pandemic.
“And if you are going to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state of New Mexico, the president’s policies are going to be a huge part of it,” he said.
Ronchetti has explained to voters the issues and what he was trying to do.
“It was a mistake. I mean, if we are going to live in a world where you are like ‘that sentence, you are done,’ OK, that is the world we live in. I just don’t think most people want to live in that world,” he said.
All three candidates have voiced strong support for Trump, such as the construction of a wall on the southern border, opposition to a ban on fracking and his stewardship of the economy.
The three contenders though present diverse resumes and hail from different backgrounds.
Martinez emerged from last March’s Republican pre-primary convention with 43% of delegates, besting what were then her four opponents.
The strong finish means her name is listed first on the primary ballot.
A Latina and enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Martinez, 46, was raised in Gallup, where her father owns an American Indian jewelry business and she attended public schools in the town.
Living in Gallup and often traveling with her father to nearby reservation communities, she received a first-hand glimpse of poverty and the social ills such communities face, something she attributes to what she calls federal government overregulation and programs that stifle economic growth.
“And that had a profound impact on my worldview and that is why I have always been a lifelong Republican and have always resisted these big government programs that I believe, and even have witnessed, are rife with waste, abuse and don’t really offer results,” Martinez said.
Martinez received a bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in art from the University of New Mexico.
Following several years working in the creative arts, she began getting actively involved in politics as a volunteer on Pearce’s 2008 Republican U.S. Senate campaign and in 2010 on the campaign for governor of Susana Martinez — no relation.
Elisa Martinez then worked with the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative economic policy organization. She is now a member of the White House Coalition for Hispanic Engagement and co-founder and executive director of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion political group.
The group’s organizing efforts, she said, contributed to the defeat of legislation during the 2019 Legislative Session that would have repealed New Mexico’s now-dormant ban on abortions.
“I am the only candidate in this race who has a record of fighting for conservative values and winning,” Martinez said.
In addition to her work on Republican campaigns and conservative issues, Martinez said she has the ability to connect with constituencies such as Hispanics, tribal members, women and millennials.
“Many have switched over, switched their party affiliation to vote for me because they are tired of the same old, same old,” she said.
In late 2019, Martinez decided to make the leap from activist to candidate because she said she wants to become an agent for change in Washington D.C.
“I think it is tragic when we travel to other neighboring states and the people there are living a higher quality of life, higher standard of living, they have better access to upward mobility, better jobs, better education for their children and safer communities and we should be able to have those opportunities here in New Mexico,” she said.
For 13 years, Ronchetti has been known by New Mexicans as the chief meteorologist for KRQE but in January, the longtime weatherman, husband and father of two decided to enter the race for the U.S. Senate.
The move is a big change, but one that Ronchetti, 46, said he felt compelled to make because he and his family are frustrated by what he said is a failure of current leaders in the state to address a host of problems, ranging from crime, to economic development to education.
“There was almost an acceptance by our leaders that this is the way it is and that we should be OK with that. Well, we shouldn’t be OK with that,” he said.
Despite never having been on the ballot before, Ronchetti said he received a fairly steady diet of politics while growing up in Vermont, hailing from what he describes as a family of staunch conservatives.
“And we grew up in a political family where we would sit around the table and we would talk about two things: We’d always have the news on and we’d always talk about politics,” Ronchetti said. He added that he has spoken to multiple Republican groups.
Ronchetti has a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in politics from Washington State University and later he received his certificate from the American Meteorology Society.
He worked as a meteorologist with KOAT from 1998 to 2004. He then moved to Portland briefly before returning to New Mexico as a meteorologist with KRQE.
As a meteorologist and television personality, Ronchetti said his job was something that routinely involved taking complex topics and breaking them down into an understandable way for a large audience.
“Well, a lot of times that is what public policy is, a lot of times public policy, in complex public policy, we have to be able to take (it) to people and say here is what it is and here is how it can help you, or if they have issues, we take those issues back and we apply them to form public policy, to make public policy that can help people and not public policy that helps the government,” Ronchetti, said.
As a candidate, Ronchetti said he also has experience reaching out to people beyond the conservative base. In primaries, Ronchetti said, he thinks candidates frequently end up only speaking to a small slice of the electorate.
“Ok, but you are not going to win doing that. We have to create a movement that draws people in that makes this party bigger,” he said.
A self-described “battle-tested swamp warrior,” Clarkson, 51, has appeared twice on New Mexico ballots.
In 2018, he came in third in a four-way race for the Republican nomination in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District. That same year, he was the party’s nominee for secretary of state after the party’s original nominee, Johanna Cox, withdrew from the race.
A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Clarkson’s father was a career Naval aviator and his mother an analyst with the Defense Department, something that sparked his interest in geopolitics, especially as it related to China.
“I learned about strategic deterrence at the dinner table,” he said. Ronald Reagan, he added, was the first president he felt truly inspired by.
Clarkson briefly served in the Navy, eventually reaching the rank of midshipman second class.
An academic with a background in finance, Clarkson has an undergraduate in management and Master of Business Administration from Rice University in Houston, where he was also later on the computer science faculty. Later, he earned a doctorate in business administration from the Harvard Business School and a law degree from the Harvard Law School.
Throughout his career, he has launched start-up businesses, owned commercial real estate and has been a professor at various institutions of higher learning including at New Mexico State University.
However, it is Clarkson’s time in the Trump administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development in the Bureau of Indian Affairs that he most often talks about.
“For President Trump, I supervised a multibillion dollar oil, gas, coal, hard rock mining, timber and agriculture portfolio,” he said.
Fostering better economic growth is one of the reasons that Clarkson said he got into the race. He said many of his students can’t get a job when they graduate in New Mexico, forcing them to leave the state.
Fixing that, he said, is less about bringing in more federal dollars to the state, but more about encouraging private industry.
In the Trump administration, Clarkson said, he worked to encourage economic development by repealing government regulations.
He said New Mexico’s economy could flourish by repealing more regulations and allowing for more economic activity on public lands, which would in turn revive the mining and timber industries and create jobs.
A background in business and finance and a knowledge of how the U.S. Senate works gleaned during his time in the Trump administration are two things Clarkson said he would bring to the Senate if elected.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or firstname.lastname@example.org.