BY JOE MONAHAN With Primary Election ‘16 bombing at the box office due to the lack of important local races, the political junkies are bailing out and skipping ahead to Campaign ‘18 when the high-stakes gubernatorial contest will again be on the ballot. They’re getting plenty of encouragement to look ahead from Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She’s already signaling that she will do something that has never happened before by deciding not to seek re-election in 2018 and instead run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Meanwhile, she has an easy re-election bid to secure a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives this November leaving her free to roam about on multiple campaign trails. Never mind that it’s two full years away from the ‘18 primary. Given a promising outlook for the Dems to take back the governor’s chair, Lujan Grisham’s early positioning appears designed to clear the field of competitors. Her most high-profile potential opponent is Attorney General Hector Balderas. The fast-rising 42-year-old, elected in 2014, made a splash with his prosecution of former GOP Secretary of State Dianna Duran and is further burnishing his corruption fighting credentials with the prosecution of former State Sen. Phil Griego. Lujan Grisham, a former two-term Bernalillo County commissioner who also served a stint as state health secretary and before that as head of the state office of aging, is taking the more direct approach in appealing to likely primary voters. Unlike Balderas, she has begun attacking the policies of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Because the governor has been largely off limits from direct and public criticism by high-level state Democrats (for a variety of reasons) Lujan Grisham’s foray into that territory grabbed the political community by the collar. “Everybody agrees we need to diversify the economy. But how? Clearly, the governor’s policies have not resulted in economic growth. Instead, we have less tax revenue for state government and few options to make the investments we need in this state,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a recent op-ed. Lujan Grisham’s attack on Martinez’s policies comes amid a round of new polling that shows Martinez’s popularity in the state has slumped since her ill-fated holiday staff “pizz-ah” party at a Santa Fe hotel. Martinez’s widely condemned behavior in reacting to noise complaints from the party cast her in a new light. That polling shows Martinez below the important 50 percent approval mark (ranging from 46 to 48 percent) and it’s mainly due to her loss of support among Democrats. It seems the most likely Democratic primary voters are ready for some red meat and Lujan Grisham is ready to give them a taste. Balderas is more prone to stick to a vegetarian diet – thus far ignoring pleas to take a more aggressive stance against the administration. His less partisan course could keep his overall approval numbers high, but that would be for naught if it hurts his chances in a Democratic primary. By hitting the accelerator hard so early in the going, Lujan Grisham opens herself to criticism from her foes. And she’s getting some. They say in her two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives she has not carved out any area of specialty, lacks attention to detail and, overall, has an unremarkable record. Republicans are also early adopters when it comes to the ‘18 contest. Already, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry are in a below-the-radar race for their party’s nomination. Sanchez may be the lieutenant governor to Martinez but there is no love lost between the two and her political machine is clearly in Berry’s corner. Plus, Sanchez was recently stung by a news report questioning his campaign finances, a sure sign that his role as front-runner for the nomination is causing his foes to fret. Then there’s the matter of other candidates from both sides of the aisle possibly joining the fray. There’s still plenty of time. With so many plots and subplots in play, no wonder the political junkies are already fixated. It will take them at least two years to figure it all out. Joe Monahan is a veteran of New Mexico politics. His daily blog can be found at joemonahan.com.
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