This is a high-stakes election for first-term New Mexico Republican Governor Susana Martinez-- and she’s not even running.
LAS CRUCES, N.M. In New Mexico, Republican Governor Susana Martinez has been unable to advance the top items on her legislative agenda. In the last two legislative sessions her agenda has been mostly blocked by a Democratic majority in the state house and senate.
To help turn the tide for the country's first Latina governor, conservative political action committees are spending big money to win more Republican seats in Santa Fe.
The most talked-about item on her agenda is the repeal of a law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain a New Mexico driver's license.
A television ad produced by the political action committee Reform New Mexico Now asks voters to "support candidates who support our governor" in order to stop the law that allows "driver's licenses to illegal immigrants."
Reform New Mexico Now is one of two PACs run by the governor's head advisor, Jay McCleskey. Combined, the groups have raised $1.6 million dollars to defeat Democrats in the general statewide election. That money is far-reaching, according to University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez.
"What you've seen is an explosion of money in the state of New Mexico across some of these lower level races," Sanchez said. "You're not used to seeing TV ads, for example, targeted in the house."
Martinez is fighting races all across the state, some bigger than others, but each just as precious. In southern New Mexico, one of her favored candidates is Republican incumbent Terry McMillan, the state representative for District 37. The state house is only three seats away from a Republican majority.
McMillan is a well respected ear, nose and throat surgeon who stays busy seeing patients at his Las Cruces office. He's running in a well-to-do district in a newer section of New Mexico's second largest city. During his first term in office he was a solid supporter of Martinez’ agenda on education, health care and the driver’s license issue. No independent polls have measured the race, but it’s widely understood to be close -- though Democrats have about a six point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
"Mine is a fairly visible and highly contested district," McMillan said. "About six to eight years ago, candidates may have spent $15,000-$20,000 paying for this office and four to five times that is required now."
McMillan has raised nearly $80,000 dollars. He's also gotten plenty of PAC support, including those with ties to the governor.
The Reform New Mexico Now PAC sent out mailers in the district targeting his opponent, Democrat Joanne Ferrary. One PAC mailer calls her a "radical political activist" who supports a policy that invites "human traffickers" into the state.
At a recent meeting with fellow Democrats at a local Mexican restaurant, Ferrary said the PAC mailer is untrue. Known locally for her work combating drunk driving, Ferrary comes across as fairly mild mannered. She actually agrees with Martinez that there needs to be a change in the way drivers licenses are issued in the state, but also thinks undocumented drivers should carry some form of license.
"Something that would recognize that people are going to have to drive and how to identify who that driver is. But then also we need to make sure that it's not used as an identification that would allow people to have other privileges," she said.
Other privileges like boarding an airplane or obtaining a license elsewhere. But meeting the governor halfway on the driver's license issue is unlikely to fly. As McMillan puts it, if Martinez has her way, the law will be repealed.
"She's not someone who is quick to compromise," he said. "She's been offered compromises and they have not been adequate."
A former district attorney, Martinez is known for tough talk and strict action. Earlier this month she called the cops on a father who'd left his baby alone in a car parked outside a Walgreens. She was there herself running errands and confronted the father with more than a few sharp words. Apparently her attitude toward disagreeing lawmakers is no different.