One of the most uniquely diverse states, New Mexico has lived most of its history as a highly-relevant battleground.

Early History – A Rapacious Start

            The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore New Mexico in 1540 on a hunt for gold and silver. Instead, they found many Native American tribes with whom they would clash for hundreds of years. The first Spanish settlement was established at Santa Fe in 1610, making it the oldest state capital in the country.

            Since New Mexico was an isolated colony surrounded by native tribes, settlers were forced to share the land with the natives and navigate the complex social and political structures. On the other hand, the Spanish governors were ruthless in their exploitation of the Native Americans and the goods New Mexico provided. The 1680 Pueblo Revolt is the most successful Native American uprising against colonists in North America. A coalition of tribes led the revolt against the Spaniards, killing over 420 of them. The revolt led the Spanish to abandon New Mexico for El Paso, Texas, where they would stay for over ten years until they were able to ally with the Pueblo against enemy tribes, such as the Navajo.

            Under control of New Spain, New Mexico was caught squarely in the transitions of power during the period of Mexican independence. As a territory, New Mexico had certain privileges and separations from the federal government of Mexico after the latter’s independence from Spain in 1821. The Santa Fe Trail allowed trade and travel to the region, growing its population. The Mexican-American War saw native tribes and settlers of the area vehemently oppose U.S. occupation. Most of New Mexico would become U.S. territory after the war, followed by the rest of the land in 1853 via the Gadsden Purchase.

            During the Civil War, the question of slavery was open as New Mexico was a territory at the time. Mexican legal tradition prohibited slavery, although Native Americans were still enslaved in the area. Since New Mexico was slated to be a slave state pursuant to the Compromise of 1850, the state actually played host to a Civil War battle. The result was a strategic Union victory that prevented the Confederacy from capturing the Western states.

            After much debate on the state’s compatibility with American culture, New Mexico became the forty-seventh state on January 6, 1912.

Twentieth Century Politics – WWII’s Most Significant Player

            New Mexico Hispanics were treated as second-class citizens from the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Called “Nuevomexicanos,” this class of people were excluded from certain aspects of society. The discrimination led them to adopt a “Spanish American” identity to pledge their allegiance to the U.S. and distinguish themselves from Mexicans. Both World Wars allowed the Nuevomexicanos ample opportunity to demonstrate their American allegiance, signing up for the war effort for service to their country and their outward displays of patriotism. However, for a myriad of reasons, New Mexico would prove to easily be the most significant state in the nation during World War II.

            The war effort focused on New Mexico led the state to have the largest proportionate loss of servicemen than any other state during World War II. The state’s rapid modernization and immigration during the war effort forever changed the state’s economy and culture. The regular economic booster shot that wars typically provide was especially good to New Mexico, creating jobs and high wages.

            New Mexico also famously served as the test site for the world’s first atomic bomb. Commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt (D-NY) under the Manhattan Project, scientists were tasked with the ultimate nuclear arms race. At the Los Alamos Research Center, the bomb was developed and tested, eventually leading to a swift end to WWII.

            Finally, New Mexico also had outsized influence in WWII from the Navajo Code Talkers. Due to forced assimilation, the Navajo language became sparsely spoken. With the American government looking for an indecipherable language to transmit messages, more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers proved valuable players during the war, and their code was never broken.

            The end of WWII signaled massive changes for New Mexico. The federal government claimed millions of acres of land to build military bases, missile ranges, testing facilities, and research and development centers. Mass immigration consisted of people looking for economic opportunity, farmers of humid-area crops, oil workers, artists, and even tuberculosis patients seeking the dry, healing air all made New Mexico a new destination, but it also lost some of its unique cultural identifiers in the process.

            New Mexico first participated in the 1912 election, voting for Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ), in what is considered the most politically diverse election in U.S. history. The eastern border of New Mexico shared cultural similarities to the Southern Democrat machine, earning the nickname “Little Texas.” This region would allow Democrats to carry the state in its first two elections, as Republicans continued to spar over the “Old Guard” and the Theodore Roosevelt progressivism.

            Wilson’s unpopularity due to foreign policy and skyrocketing inflation, as well as a re-unified GOP, led Warren Harding (R-OH) to be the first Republican to carry New Mexico in 1920. The GOP would win New Mexico in all three 1920s elections, culminating in a decisive eighteen-point margin for Herbert Hoover (R-CA) in 1928. Al Smith’s (D-NY) Catholicism challenged the Democratic status quo, allowing Hoover to sweep the Little Texas region. Additionally, the Catholic heritage of New Mexico’s Hispanic population made it a nice fit for the GOP.

            FDR would cruise to victory in 1932, delivering the best presidential performance in the state to date. New Mexico would back FDR in all four of his terms, as well as Harry Truman (D-MO) in 1948. 1952 would see the state back Dwight Eisenhower (R-KS), as well as the start of one of the longest bellwether county streaks in the nation: Valencia County. The Albuquerque-area county would back the winner of each election from 1952 until 2020.

            As Catholic and Hispanic voting power waned in the state after WWII, New Mexico backed John F. Kennedy (D-MA) in 1960, followed by Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) in 1964. Here, New Mexico would develop a profile as a swing state, regularly flipping between both parties until the early 2000s. New Mexico has also been a reliable bellwether from statehood; since 1912, New Mexico has only backed the loser in three elections: 1976 (Carter), 2000 (Gore), and 2016 (Hillary Clinton).

            1980 saw the landslide election of Ronald Reagan (R-CA), making Jimmy Carter (D-GA) the only Democrat to have been elected president without ever winning New Mexico.

            In 1992, Bill Clinton (D-AR) would become the first Democrat to win New Mexico since Lyndon Johsnon in 1964. The watershed election would mark a shift in the state’s politics, as it would transition from a perennial swing state to a blue-leaning battleground. New Mexico had the country’s thinnest raw vote margin in 2000, with Al Gore (D-TN) winning the state by just 366 votes out of more than 500,000 cast. George Bush (R-TX) is the last Republican to have won New Mexico, carrying it narrowly in 2004, credited to his support among Hispanic voters.

Geography – The Land of Enchantment

            New Mexico’s geography can be summed up by its three Congressional districts:

  1. CD-01: Home to the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, and rural outlying areas. A moderately Democratic district, this is one that could be more competitive if the GOP can significantly swing Hispanic voters.
  2. CD-02: Encompassing the entire southern border of the state and about two-thirds of the western border, this district is one of the most competitive nationwide. Containing parts of Albuquerque, as well as Las Cruces and Hobbs, the district actually only has a few blue-leaning counties. The district also contains part of the Little Texas region, now a staunchly Republican part of the state. Last decade’s iteration of this district was decently Republican, but Democrats scored an upset here in 2018. The GOP flipped it back in 2020, only for the Democratic gerrymander to deliver this seat back to the Democrats in 2022. This seat is one of the most competitive going into the 2024 cycle.
  3. CD-03: A sprawling district across the northern border of the state and two-thirds of the state’s eastern border with Texas. Home to the bulk of Indian reservations, including the Navajo Nation, Santa Fe, Clovis, Farmington, and Taos. The northern counties are staunchly Democratic, while the eastern counties, former Little Texas counties, are solidly Republican. Safely Democratic.

Current Political Leanings – An Open Question

            On paper, New Mexico should be a Republican state: mostly rural, religious, and industrious. The state ranks fifth in oil production and second in natural gas production nationwide. The sizable Catholic population makes for more socially conservative values that could outpace the liberal lean of the state’s urban centers. However, identity politics concerning Native Americans and Hispanic voters have kept New Mexico just out of arm’s reach for the GOP.

            The GOP has found success on the state level, last governing the state in 2019.

            Democrats currently control both Senate seats, with Republicans last having won one in 2002 and last having held both simultaneously in 1983.

            Democrats have effective locks on the First and Third Districts, with the competitive Second currently held by Gabe Vasquez (D).

            Republicans have not held both chambers of the state legislature simultaneously since 1929.

            Going forward, if the GOP continues to court Hispanic voters, it could absolutely turn the state in their direction. An off-the-radar Senate race in 2020 shocked observers when the underfunded Republican came nearly within five points of winning the seat, owed to better-than-expected performance by Donald Trump (R-FL) among Latinos. The intrinsic libertarian character of this state and high number of Independents regularly dictates who wins here.

            As one of the nation’s poorer states, inflation and the border crisis could also be defining issues in the 2024 race and beyond. New Mexico’s uniquely diverse electorate will certainly keep it relevant going forward.

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Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.