story and photos by Michael Tilley
A potential leader in the rehab of a national Republican Party somewhat staggered by the recent federal government shutdown was in Fort Smith on Tuesday (Oct. 29) to explain that GOP voter outreach must be more than traditional conservative talking points and “trashing Democrats.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez addressed about 300 Republicans from around Arkansas and Oklahoma gathered in Fort Smith for the annual Lincoln Day Dinner conducted as a fundraiser by the Sebastian County Republican Committee.
Members of the crowd included Asa Hutchinson, the presumptive GOP nominee in the Arkansas gubernatorial race, and 4th Congressional District GOP candidates Tommy Moll and Rep. Bruce Westerman.
Martinez, a district prosecutor, entered the 2010 gubernatorial race in New Mexico against four candidates who were much more well-known than she. In fact, according to Northwest Arkansas-based political consultant John Horne, Martinez had a dismal 3% name ID about a week after announcing her gubernatorial candidacy.
Not only did Martinez win the GOP primary against overwhelming odds, she defeated Democratic candidate Diane Demish with more than 53% of the vote. Martinez became the first female governor of New Mexico and the first Hispanic female governor of any U.S. state. She did so in a state in which the Democratic Party is the dominant party. The New Mexico House and Senate are controlled by Democrats.
Martinez remains popular almost three years into her first term as New Mexico Governor with the Democratically controlled state legislature. A May 2013 poll found 66% job approval among state voters, with 64% approval from Independents and 44% from Democrats.
Martinez promotes her humble beginnings – born into a poor family in El Paso, Texas – and political conversion – she switched her Democratic registration to Republican in 1995. She has become a closely watched figure in Republican politics who was reported to be on Mitt Romney’s short list for vice president in his failed 2012 bid to unseat President Barack Obama.
She was named to the 2013 Time Magazine 100 most influential people in the world, with her accolades penned for Time by President George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove.
Her star power within the Republican Party grew brighter with an almost 12-minute speech during the 2012 Republican National Convention.
“This election should not be about political parties. Too many Americans are out of work, and our debt is out of control. This election needs to be about those issues and it is the responsibility of both parties to offer up real solutions and have an honest debate,” Martinez said in her RNC speech.
‘VISUALIZE’ THE MESSAGE
But in speaking to Arkansas Republican leaders and elected officials gathered in Fort Smith, Martinez pointed out reasons why Republicans often fail to connect with voters. She said Republicans have to “stop visiting minorities” and “start making them part of the solution.” She said minorities know the difference between a candidate who wants votes and a candidate who wants results.
Martinez also said Republicans must not be afraid to visit unfriendly territory. She said part of the reason she won in New Mexico was that she was not afraid to take her “consistent conservative message” of limited government to areas where no Republicans had previously visited.
Rhetoric and talking points don’t work, Martinez said. She said Republican candidates “can’t just talk about lowering taxes,” they must help voters “visualize” what it takes for business and individual success.
‘PAVE THAT PATH’
In addition to being able to connect culturally with Hispanic voters in New Mexico, Martinez said she was successful because she “didn’t trash Democrats just for the sake of trashing Democrats.” Instead, according to Martinez, she touted her advantages rather than attack her opponent.
Martinez also said her political ambition included being a role model for young ladies – like the five members of a Fort Smith Girls Scout troop who presented the colors at the event. She said Republican leaders must seek to be “real and honest role models” for the next generation of leaders.
“I want to pave that path for those little girls,” Martinez said. “That’s what motivates me to do the right things for the right reasons.”
In closing, Gov. Martinez encouraged the crowd to “show Washington how state and local governments work” and “how we balance our budgets.”