Susana Martinez the GOP's Mexican Connection

President Obama went to El Paso, Tex., last Tuesday to give a speech on immigration reform, urging those in the audience to support the DREAM (Development, Relief and Eduction for Alien Minors) Act, which would, among other things, allow illegal immigrants to get instate tuition rates at many universities and offer them a path to citizenship.  The real point of the speech, however, was political, as Obama and Democrats assume that Hispanics in places such as El Paso will vote for and become Democrats for generations.

While Obama was giving his speech, though, approximately 325 miles to the north in Santa Fe, N.M., an El Paso native of Mexican descent was in her fifth month as the nation’s first Hispanic female governor, and New Mexico’s first female governor.

And, as a conservative Republican, Susana Martinez is living proof that assumptions about how members of certain groups, particularly Mexicans, will align politically are fraught with peril.

Martinez, who beat Democrat Diane Denish in 2010, has the opportunity to be the most consequential Republican elected during the last two election cycles.

Conservative commentator Michael Medved recently wrote that “the very survival of the party depends on further efforts to undermine Democratic efforts to portray the GOP as a bigoted, whites-only political movement.”

The mainstream press (and even the mainstream conservative press) has focused on Florida’s newly elected Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, hailing him as the “Republican Obama,” and on South Carolina’s Gov. Nikki Haley, of Indian descent, labeling her as “Ronald Reagan in a skirt.”  But just as the media often ignore Mountain West Conference and Western Athletic Conference football, Martinez has the most potential for the GOP because she may allow the party to make inroads with the most important constituency in the short and long term: voters of Mexican descent.

Many analysts believe the 2012 election will be decided on the frontier in states such as New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.  And the Hispanic vote in those states is primarily cast by people of Mexican descent, which makes Martinez’ rise even more significant, because she can appeal to those who might not have otherwise given the GOP message a chance.

Democrats hold a significant registration advantage over Republicans in New Mexico, where 50% of registered voters are Democrats while only 32% are Republicans.

According to recently released census figures, New Mexico’s population is also 45.6% Hispanic, the highest percentage of any state.  In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama carried the state by winning 57% of the vote.  According to Pew Hispanic Center research, Obama carried the Hispanic vote in New Mexico, with 69% of the state’s Hispanics casting their votes for him.  In that election, the Hispanic vote increased by nearly 30%.

In her victory, Martinez did not fare extremely well with Hispanics, but her percentage of the Hispanic vote was about 10% greater than what Obama got in 2008, and even that dent could make a difference for Republicans in key swing states.

Martinez got elected at a time when Republicans are doing poorly with minority voters, but her identity will in no way be enough for her star to endure.  For that she must make the most of how she turned New Mexico around from the mess Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson made of it.  In a way, the GOP’s challenge and opportunity with Hispanic voters mirror Martinez’ opportunities and challenges in turning New Mexico around.

Martinez was elected because Richardson was an abject failure both fiscally and ethically.  Richardson’s tenure was clouded by ethical lapses and improprieties.  He also presided over a state that went hundreds of millions of dollars into debt.

In her State of the State address, Martinez said that “the day I was elected governor, the state’s budget deficit was estimated at just over $200 million. A week later, it doubled and grew to almost half a billion dollars.  … I am here to tell the people of New Mexico that the days of kicking the can down the road are over.”

And, by many indicators, Martinez has made good on her promise.

Martinez cut salaries within her cabinet by 10%.  She has pledged to reduce the number of political appointees in state government by at least 20%, told bureaucrats to find places to cut excess spending, and urged New Mexico residents to e-mail her tips on how to cut unnecessary state expenditures.  She has even adopted some of the suggestions she received, such as cutting unnecessary state vehicles, except for those used by law enforcement agencies.

As a symbol of clean government, she has put the state’s private aircraft up for sale, just as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who endorsed Martinez in her contested primary, did.  Richardson had misused the airplanes during his tenure, wasting taxpayer dollars on his friends and political cronies.  Martinez also led by example, cutting the costs at the governor’s residence by 55%.  She even eliminated two personal chefs and joked, “The first gentleman will just have to help out with the cooking.”

Martinez also reduced the film subsidy that went mostly to Hollywood, saying that taxpayers should not have been subsidizing millionaires in Hollywood at the rates at which they were.

Martinez showed leadership by getting many of her priorities included in the $5.4 billion budget she signed, which cut government spending while preserving funding on education, without raising taxes.  In the budget, public employees conceded to contributing 1.75% more to their pension and benefits plan, with the state reducing exactly the same percentage that it would contribute to save costs.

As for the other signature issue that Martinez campaigned on—revoking driver’s licenses given to illegal immigrants—she has vowed to veto any licensing legislation that does not explicitly revoke those licenses.

When legislation passed the New Mexico Senate that still allowed illegal immigrants to get licenses, Martinez simply said, “That bill currently continues to give.  …  [licenses] to illegal immigrants.  … I oppose that.  I will not support that.”