Party favors: Should parties pick candidates before voters do?

The 2018 battle over New Mexico’s most conservative district shows just how undemocratic politics can be.

On Nov. 21, 2017, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Angel Peña met Xochitl Torres Small at a coffee shop to talk Democratic politics. Peña was preparing to run for Congress, and Torres Small had come to ask him not to.

“We are running now, so you can step down,” she said, according to Peña.

“We” referred to Torres Small and her husband, Nathan Small, a state representative, who was Peña’s close friend. Peña was shocked: A few weeks before, uninspired by other candidates, Peña had told Small that he planned to run, and Small hadn’t said anything about his wife. Peña hadn’t thought to ask. From 2009 to 2012, Torres Small had run Sen. Tom Udall’s southern New Mexico field office, but she’d been less involved in Las Cruces politics recently. After leaving his field office, she went to law school at the University of New Mexico, three hours away in Albuquerque, and then clerked for a federal judge in Las Cruces before accepting a job in the private sector as a water attorney.

That night, Peña emailed Torres Small. Letting small groups of people select political candidates made him feel uncomfortable, he said, and he declined to drop out. But a few months later, Peña would find himself forced from the race anyway, disqualified by the New Mexico secretary of State and bankrupted by lawsuits, one of them brought by Torres Small’s campaign. His closest supporters called what had happened “candidate suppression.” They believed that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, which works to elect Democratic House majorities, had rigged the game against him and other candidates, and that the local establishment had followed its lead.


In New Mexico, liberalism flows like the Rio Grande — full in the north and depleted in the south. Interstate 40, which crosses the state horizontally through Albuquerque, roughly marks the divide, and a similar geographic logic organizes the state’s three House districts. The first forms a bubble around Albuquerque, and the third covers what lies north, all the way to Colorado. Both vote reliably Democratic.   

The second, where Peña planned to run, encompasses the portion south of I-40, extending to Texas and Mexico, and almost always votes Republican. It traverses dried lava fields, mountain ranges, dunes of gypsum, the country’s oldest wilderness area, Permian oil country, and the alleged landing sites of extraterrestrials. If you abide by the speed limit, which few do, driving from one corner to another takes about eight hours. Diverse groups of tribes, towns and ranchers populate its lands, stretching across burnt-yellow high-desert plains. It’s hard to form a coherent political coalition out of the district, which is about the size of North Dakota. Hispanics constitute a majority, but they’re not a very cohesive liberal bloc. Like many parts of the Southwest, New Mexico is home to different waves of immigrants spanning more than 400 years of history. Spanish land-grant families — who frequently describe the border as having crossed them — sometimes vote more like nativist conservatives. More recent arrivals often claim more Spanish than Mexican heritage as well, and many work in the Republican-friendly industries of oil and dairy.

Recently, sprawling Western districts like Congressional District 2 have become crucial swing districts in the fight for congressional majorities, and Democratic Party leaders have begun targeting them earlier and more directly. Often, this means picking favorites long before primary voters head to the polls, clearing the field before the race begins. For some, such party control is inoffensive, but others see it as a shrinking of democracy.

ANGEL PEÑA GREW UP A LONG WAY FROM POLITICS. His mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, raised him in a small house in El Paso, with help from her father. In middle school, he learned to play the euphonium and, after graduating high school, enrolled as a music performance major at New Mexico State University, just 40 minutes up the highway, in Las Cruces.

During Peña’s second year at NMSU, he and his girlfriend, Kasey, had a child together, and Peña’s parents cut off financial support, hoping it would force him to grow up. The  couple married soon after, and Peña left NMSU for the cheapest physical therapy program he could find. He picked a program in El Paso, delivering for Pizza Hut to pay his way through, and then started working in a Las Cruces clinic. He also re-enrolled at NMSU, this time in archaeology. Soon, he started getting internships around town; first, with the Bureau of Land Management, and then for a young city councilman, Nathan Small, who needed a Spanish-speaking community liaison. Some years, he found himself interning, working and completing his NMSU degree all at the same time, a hustle that quickly made the city feel like home. Eventually, he landed a job at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. 

Angel Peña poses for a portrait on a trail in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. Peña worked to help establish the monument, which was designated by President Barack Obama in 2014.

Peña’s journey into public advocacy in Las Cruces, in the early 2010s, meant that he worked on many of the defining projects for the community’s emerging liberal activists. He became treasurer for a group that pushed for a national monument designation of the Organ Mountains, Las Cruces’ postcard backdrop of spiky desert peaks, and served as a board member. Obama designated the monument in 2014, and the Conservation Lands Foundation, a national group based in Durango, Colorado, hired Peña. Over the next few years, he worked on a number of public-lands projects around the Southwest — New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Texas — taking stories and translating them into advocacy that lawmakers could understand. It was a bit like playing the euphonium, he told me, tuning his message to whatever audience he needed to form coalitions — county commissions, private industry, ranchers.

By the summer of 2017, the former college dropout, now 29, was working with high-profile members of Congress like Beto O’Rourke. They’d fought to add protections to El Paso’s Castner Range, a feat they achieved despite a Republican Congress and a White House intent on rolling back public-lands protections. O’Rourke often relied on the public-lands pressure Peña helped organize to lobby policymakers in Washington.

In the spring of 2017, at a conference in Las Vegas, O’Rourke ribbed Peña. “So when are you going to run?” 

Peña’s colleagues had nudged him before, but O’Rourke made him take the idea more seriously. By the fall, he’d made up his mind. “I kept thinking we needed somebody young and brown, who looked like the district,” he told me.

“I kept thinking we needed somebody young and brown, who looked like the district.”

By the time Peña decided to run, the DCCC had already come to District 2 on its usual mission in potential swing districts: to find — and favor — the primary candidate it believed had the best chance at winning the general election. Over the past few decades, picking favorites in primaries has become a controversial feature of the DCCC’s strategy, as it has with its Republican equivalent, the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC. Both committees have programs that provide extra support to a subset of candidates, usually ones in competitive swing districts: “The Young Guns” for the NRCC, and “Red to Blue” for the DCCC.

For Democrats running in 2018, the Red to Blue program set out to target Republican-held districts that could possibly be flipped, recruiting candidates long before primary voters went to the polls. Typically, DCCC picks (and not just those receiving extra Red to Blue support) receive funding and other resources from the committee, including consulting outfits that work in a variety of areas — media strategy, polling, campaign management and fundraising. Candidates who accept the committee’s endorsement agree to hire consultants from a list of approved DCCC partners, or vendors. A candidate’s status as the DCCC’s pick helps raise money, gather support and signal viability in what political scientists often call “the invisible primary,” where party elites and donors coalesce behind a supposed favorite before voters go to the polls. The favorites, in turn, use this to signal their strength and legitimacy to the party establishment, media and the public, creating a snowball of support.

For those without DCCC backing, defeating the committee’s pick is challenging. Hans Hassell, a political scientist at Florida State, found that between 2004 and 2016, 68% of party picks won primaries where multiple candidates were running without an incumbent, and where the party didn’t clear the field. The Intercept, meanwhile, has reported that only two candidates without DCCC support in 2018 defeated the committee’s primary picks.

None of this makes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee look very democratic, so party leaders avoid discussing the issue. When they do, however, they generally offer a few arguments for picking favorites in primaries.  Without intervention, they worry, voters might nominate a candidate too liberal, or too underfunded, to win the general election. Second, clearing primary fields behind a single favorite means spending less money and blood attacking other Democrats, resources that are better saved for the general election. Others say that the committee’s job is to win majorities, not to be democratic, fair or ethical, and that justifying their tactics is irrelevant. Besides, European democracies offer their voters even less choice in picking party nominees, and if outsiders can’t overcome DCCC favorites in the primaries, what hope do they have of defeating a Koch-funded Republican in the general?

If outsiders can’t overcome DCCC favorites in the primaries, what hope do they have of defeating a Koch-funded Republican in the general?

In 2018, New Mexico Democrats were dreaming of winning every federal and statewide race, and Congressional District 2 was their greatest obstacle. But there was reason for hope. In special elections across the country, Democrats had flipped more challenging seats, and Ben Ray Luján, New Mexico’s representative from its 3rd Congressional District, now chaired the DCCC in Washington. That put him in a perfect position to support a Democrat in District 2, where increasing turnout would also help his cousin, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was running for governor. Optimists saw parallels with 2008, the first time a Democrat had won District 2 in decades, during a good cycle for Democrats. That year, the district’s incumbent Republican representative, Steve Pearce, left to run for Senate. He eventually lost to Tom Udall and took District 2 back two years later. But in 2017, Pearce had decided to run for statewide office once more, this time for governor against Lujan Grisham, leaving the seat vacant again.

Initially, party leaders hoped to run Joe Cervantes, a state senator from Las Cruces, District 2’s largest city and Democratic base. Cervantes came from the older, more conservative faction of business-friendly Democrats in Las Cruces, and his centrism appealed to party leaders seeking a moderate. But he chose to run for governor instead, a position more powerful than District 2, and easier to hold as a Democrat.

Ben Ray Luján, U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, delivers a speech to attendees of a Democratic Party campaign rally in Socorro, New Mexico, in November 2018. He later was promoted to assistant House speaker, and declared his run for Tom Udall’s open Senate seat in 2020, with Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement.

Molly Ritner, the DCCC’s Midwest political director at the time, soon came searching for a candidate. In late summer, she met with Tony Martinez, a co-founder of the city’s chapter of Indivisible, a liberal grassroots group formed following Donald Trump’s election. Martinez had worked for Abbott and Valeant, the pharmaceutical companies, and served in the first Gulf War and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He announced his candidacy in July. Martinez’s ideology was moderate in ways the DCCC allegedly preferred in swing districts. He wanted universal healthcare, though not single-payer. He favored corporate tax cuts, to keep companies from going overseas, but thought wealthy Americans should be taxed more. He spoke softly, the way a wise, calming father might, and he distrusted identity politics. “I think ‘We as Americans’ is always better than ‘I as a Latino’,” he told me. It was a lesson the military had taught him.

But his policy preferences seemed of little interest to Ritner. For the DCCC to consider supporting him, Ritner explained, Martinez would need to raise $300,000 per quarter.

At one point, Martinez’s wife, Lisa, butted in.

“Do you know what he stands for?” she asked.

“We don’t care what he stands for, because he’ll have to caucus with us anyway,” she said.

Martinez dropped out in mid-October, disappointed in the Democratic Party, and stepped back from Indivisible. By that time, five other candidates — David Baake, Mad Hildebrandt, Adolf Zubia, Ron Fitzherbert and Thomas Durham — had announced their candidacies. Two of them, Hildebrandt and Baake, took up the DCCC’s invitation —which was extended to them even though they hadn’t hit the minimum fundraising targets to qualify — to attend one of the committee’s training sessions in DC, in October. But none were young and brown.  Peña decided to run.

Among the first people Peña told, in early November, was Nathan Small, his former boss on the Las Cruces City Council. The two now ran a horse-trekking business together, and Small pledged to support his friend. Next, Peña consulted Jeff Steinborn, a state senator and one of Las Cruces’ most wily political maneuverers. Steinborn, who was popular with the city’s progressives, constantly talked about his past work for former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, and his family was practically its own institution in the city. His father had served as Las Cruces’ mayor for three terms in the 1980s, and then became a powerful local real estate developer.

Steinborn reacted to Peña’s announcement much the way Small did; he seemed somewhat surprised, but said he’d help him. He then asked more questions. What were Peña’s fundraising strategies? How would he collect enough signatures to qualify? He’d taken down other opponents on signatures, Steinborn told him on a walk together, according to Peña. At the time, Peña didn’t think much of the comment.

Steinborn also told Peña that he was the DCCC’s point person in southern New Mexico, and that he was in close communication with Ritner. This meant Steinborn played an important yet informal role in the DCCC’s recruiting process that the Committee rarely acknowledges. That is, that the organization tends to rely heavily on established local political figures, like Steinborn, to recommend and recruit candidates. Given that the DCCC can’t possibly know every district across the country, this is understandable, but this also tends to give players like Steinborn inordinate sway, favoring the preferences of establishment politicians. “They go with the people that they know, and that can miss a whole lot of opportunities,” Hassell told me.

Peña, at least, knew Steinborn well, and was cautiously optimistic about his support. Over the next few weeks, Peña shared campaign strategies with him and Small, saying he planned to announce in early January. Ritner, meanwhile, began screening him. Then, in late November, Torres Small met him at the coffee shop and told him she’d decided to run.

That night, Peña couldn’t sleep. The week before he met with Torres Small, Nathan Small had asked to review a list of the donors Peña would be targeting, according to Peña. Peña gave him the information, suspecting nothing, and now Steinborn and Small knew everything about his early campaign strategies. Small, he felt, had deceived him; in early November, when Peña first told Small of his plans, Small said nothing about his wife considering a run, and Steinborn hadn’t mentioned anything either. Later, Torres Small told me she’d decided to run in December, though Tom Udall recalled them discussing the possibility around October. That same month, a public official in Las Cruces informed one of Peña’s supporters that a young Hispanic woman with a lot of money behind her would soon be entering the race, and that Peña’s candidacy would be hopeless.

Democratic Party candidate for New Mexico’s 2nd U.S. Congressional District, Xochitl Torres Small (second from left), poses for photographs with supporters following her speech at a campaign event at an A&W restaurant in Belen, New Mexico, last November.

Though Peña had developed impressive political connections, Torres Small was probably considered closer to establishment networks, fundraising channels and potential endorsements. She had worked for a popular U.S. senator, married a state representative, and she and her husband were close allies of Steinborn. Across the country, Democrats were looking to elect women, and Torres Small was in her early 30s and Hispanic — young and brown like Peña. She grew up in Las Cruces, the daughter of a teacher and a social worker, and returned home after studying abroad and attending Georgetown, a living example of fighting brain drain.

By December, Ritner had already been screening Peña extensively, digging into his personal life, including his divorce from Kasey. The couple had since reunited, and Ritner later dismissed these concerns, but someone close to Ritner leaked the investigation, and rumors spread about his divorce. Peña was growing anxious. Ritner had largely gone silent, and county chairs around the district kept asking Peña whether he was the DCCC pick. That bothered Peña: Why did party chairs care more about the DCCC’s preferences than voters’?

In December, Ritner finally called Peña. The DCCC would be going with Torres Small, she said, and money and endorsements soon began heading her way. According to Peña, local politicians who had once offered to help him began pulling away as well.  The invisible primary had started, and Peña seemed to be losing.

While Peña scrambled to get a head start with his announcement, Torres Small began working to clear the field, advertising endorsements and her status as the DCCC’s pick in private conversations, according to other primary candidates. Many left on their own accord. Zubia dropped out in September, citing family considerations — a decision Torres Small called him to confirm — and Fitzherbert happily left the race when he discovered Torres Small was running. Durham met with Torres Small briefly and discussed many issues, including consolidation, and dropped out willingly as well.

But not everyone conceded so easily. David Baake, a Harvard-educated lawyer who announced his candidacy in the summer, met with Torres Small in December. At the meeting, Torres Small indicated that she now had DCCC backing and important financial support. In January, Baake discussed the meeting with other primary candidates’ supporters. According to sources present at the meeting, he described feeling upset and pressured to leave the race by Torres Small, who, they said, had asked Baake for his endorsement. Around the same time, Baake also helped review a critical letter sent to the DCCC and other party leaders, objecting to the committee’s early role in the primary. (Previously, Baake said, the DCCC had assured him his campaign could operate without interference.) But shortly after reviewing the letter, in January, he dropped out and endorsed Torres Small. (A close associate of Baake’s denied that Torres Small had pressured him to drop out.)

Around the same time, Maria Flores, a Las Cruces school board member, also began to consider running. According to a source familiar with the situation, Torres Small pressed her to leave the race as well, and Flores reluctantly assented.

Still, Torres Small didn’t clear the field entirely. Mad Hildebrandt — a professor and Coast Guard veteran from Socorro who’d been running for months — refused to drop out when Torres Small called to ask her to, according to Hildebrandt. Peña, meanwhile, was still charging ahead, and probably remained Torres Small’s biggest threat: Outside his sex, he could claim everything vogue in liberal politics that Torres Small could. He was young, brown, fluent in Spanish, and he came from even humbler beginnings. Like Torres Small, he had an impressive background in public service and conservation. “I think it would have been a tough primary,” a political figure in Las Cruces told me.

The only thing Peña didn’t have, it seemed, was money and party support, which were now flowing to Torres Small. On Jan. 17, with endorsements from dozens of politicians, Torres Small formally announced her candidacy, and, in mid-February, almost three months before the primary, the DCCC announced her as a Red-to-Blue pick. Torres Small would go on to set fundraising records, while Peña raised just under $15,000. Still, he remained committed to testing purer notions of democracy.

“We had the people,” he said. “Our plan was to out-organize them.”

An attendee at a campaign event takes a photograph of Democratic Party candidate Xochitl Torres Small (left) posing with supporters in Belen, New Mexico, last November.

OVER THE WINTER, PEÑA CAMPAIGNED all over the district, visiting multiple counties a day. He loved to travel, and he liked the storytelling involved in public-lands advocacy, which was essential to campaigning. It was a welcome break from what Nathan Small and Jeff Steinborn sometimes called “triangulation,” the tactical work of coordinating support or opposition among political elites — and grassroots organizing was a breath of fresh air in comparison. But things soon began to unravel, and Peña ultimately became a kind of victim to political schemes himself.

On Feb. 6, a Tuesday, 623 valid petition signatures were due to New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, to qualify for the primary ballot. But just before the filing deadline, a contractor Peña hired to collect them suddenly disappeared. (When I reached him by phone, he said he’d been too busy with personal issues to turn them in.) Peña’s campaign rushed to gather backup signatures, submitting 773, leaving little margin for error. The results of the signature filings were scheduled to be posted by the following Tuesday.

Though it would take a week before Toulouse Oliver publicly posted the candidate list, Ben Salazar, an aide to Tom Udall, Torres Small’s champion and former boss, received a link to the list the very next morning. He emailed it to the state Democratic Party’s Hispanic Caucus, which included a Peña supporter, and Peña learned that he’d been disqualified that weekend. One of Peña’s most fervent supporters, Evelyn Madrid Erhard, asked Toulouse Oliver for an explanation. Over the phone, Toulouse Oliver expressed regret that the list had leaked, according to Madrid Erhard, but held firm on her reasons for disqualifying Peña.

Toulouse Oliver’s reasoning, however, struck many as absurd. On some of Peña’s petition pages, the “ñ” in Peña and Doña Ana County had printed as “Ó.” Before gathering signatures, Peña’s staff crossed out the letters by hand with a pen and rewrote the ñ, but this violated a New Mexico elections provision. Nominating petitions, the statute reads, are deemed invalid “if any of the required information is altered.” Toulouse Oliver said this rendered those pages moot, leaving Peña short of the minimum signatures.

At a court in Santa Fe, Anderson argued that the tilde objection discriminated against candidates with Spanish names, and that the disqualification went against the spirit of the law. There was no intent to deceive, she added, or to confuse voters. 

Peña hired a lawyer, Erika Anderson, and challenged his disqualification. At a court in Santa Fe, Anderson argued that the tilde objection discriminated against candidates with Spanish names, and that the disqualification went against the spirit of the law. There was no intent to deceive, she added, or to confuse voters. Toulouse Oliver’s ruling also seemed unusually harsh; precedent afforded some legal room for bureaucratic discretion in making exceptions to the statute, so as not to disenfranchise voters, but Toulouse Oliver refused to grant this for Peña. (A few weeks later, when another candidate for public office submitted petitions with similarly altered headings, county clerks did not flag them. This case was challenged as well, and the judge ruled in favor of the candidate, declaring there was no evidence it confused voters.)

In the courtroom, two state’s lawyers fought hard against Peña. After a day of argument, the judge upheld Peña’s disqualification, ruling that the tilde correction technically violated the letter of the law, but invited Peña to appeal to the state Supreme Court. In a later case, he acknowledged that he struggled with the decision, saying he preferred leaning towards the enfranchisement of candidates whenever possible.

Peña planned to appeal, but he was now facing challenges from other directions. A second lawsuit had also been filed against him in Las Cruces, under the name William Thomas Morrow, challenging the validity of many of his signatures. William Thomas Morrow, better known as Tommy, was a close ally of the Smalls, along with his son, Emerson, an aspiring young politician. Emerson Morrow had served as student body president at New Mexico State — he later resigned, facing impeachment — and as state president for the College Democrats. In the summers, he interned for Tom Udall and Ben Ray Luján, and he frequently volunteered for Nathan Small’s campaigns. When Peña had reached out to him to speak at NMSU that winter, Emerson often canceled meetings.

When I reached Tommy Morrow by phone, he admitted that Torres Small’s campaign had asked to file the lawsuit under his name. “I didn’t know many of the details, but I was happy to step forward for them,” he told me. “They just needed someone who was going to support Xochitl and Nathan. And I do. Our son has worked for Nathan, and I actually helped him on his campaign.” A few months later, FEC filings revealed that Torres Small’s campaign paid Karen Mendenhall, the lawyer who brought the Morrow lawsuit, and who was in the courtroom for the tilde case, more than $18,000 for “legal services” in four payments. The fee was greater than the entire sum of money Peña had raised for his campaign, and its largest installment had been paid shortly after he left the race.

“The FEC has taken a very liberal view of when campaign funds may be used to pay legal expenses,” Brett Kappel, an expert on elections law in D.C., told me, when I asked him about the situation’s legal implications. But, he added, “if there were a complaint over this, the FEC would want to know why the campaign wasn’t the plaintiff in the case.” In any case, by the time Torres Small’s campaign had to report the payments, there was no use in filing a complaint. Peña’s candidacy was over.

The Morrow lawsuit was also shaky. In February, Torres Small’s campaign manager, Brian Sowyrda, had requested Peña’s petitions from the secretary of State, and the campaign then sent a volunteer, Ashley Beyer, to Santa Fe to check them against the state’s voter files, for the Morrow lawsuit. Beyer, an elections professional in Las Cruces, told me she’d offered to do this as a matter of professional development and education. But the irony was hard to miss. In the past, Beyer had worked for organizations like FairVote New Mexico, and now Torres Small’s campaign was tasking her to help with disenfranchisement. Many of the mistakes she ended up citing in court documents, however, didn’t withstand scrutiny, and Karen Mendenhall amended some a few days later. Beyer told me she didn’t know why many of the errors she cited had been amended — she’d only heard rumors, which she wasn’t willing to share with me. After her trip to Santa Fe, she told me she’d grown uncomfortable with how partisan it felt and stopped assisting in the lawsuit.

By this point, the party’s reach felt almost comical; Peña had run into a young party boss connected to Torres Small at the lowest level of politics — a university’s student body president — and now the young man’s father’s name was being used to sue him out of the race. Torres Small’s campaign, well-funded with DCCC backing, had effectively bankrupted his own candidacy with lawsuits, and Peña, now personally in debt, lacked the money or time left for a legal challenge.

By this point, the party’s reach felt almost comical; Peña had run into a young party boss connected to Torres Small at the lowest level of politics — a university’s student body president — and now the young man’s father’s name was being used to sue him out of the race.

Despite this, with his appeal in the air, Peña still planned to speak at the upcoming preprimary convention in Albuquerque, on March 10. But before the convention, he received a message from Richard Ellenberg, New Mexico’s Democratic Party chair at the time, who had previously rejected complaints about party favoritism. (The DCCC, he said, was not part of the Democratic Party or bound by state neutrality laws, and it could support anyone it wanted to.) If Peña planned to speak as a candidate, Ellenberg told him, Maggie Toulouse Oliver would file for a restraining order against him.

Peña’s lawyer was skeptical Toulouse Oliver had this authority, but Peña finally gave up. After a month of fighting, they’d run out of time and money. “Erika said I was moot,” he told me.

At the convention, Peña instead introduced Mad Hildebrandt, while his supporters watched. Luján, the DCCC chairman, was also in attendance, and Evelyn Madrid Erhard confronted him. In 2012, before winning the Democratic nomination for District 2, Madrid Erhard had made appointments in Washington, D.C., to meet with Steve Israel, then the DCCC chair, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the DNC. She’d paid for travel expenses out of her own pocket, but when she arrived in D.C., Israel and Wasserman Schultz both ghosted her. Madrid Erhard ended up meeting with a staffer on a curb. Now, she saw the Democratic Party as having over-intervened in the primary, to the point of usurping democracy.

At the convention, Madrid Erhard found Luján and accused the Democratic Party of favoritism.

“I have the constitutional right to support whoever the hell I want!” he yelled at her, according to Madrid Erhard.

It was a fitting end to Peña’s candidacy. In southern New Mexico, favoritism had begun with the DCCC, but nothing stayed national. As in all states, ambitious ladder-climbers were everywhere in local politics, and their incentives for career advancement didn’t tend toward opposing the their party’s wishes. A few weeks later, Toulouse Oliver and Attorney General Hector Balderas, also a Democrat, endorsed Torres Small. And, despite previously telling Peña he wouldn’t be supporting anyone in the primary, Martin Heinrich, New Mexico’s junior senator, endorsed her as well.

State politicos quickly fall in line. “It’s like Chicago politics, but spread across 120,000 square miles,” a New Mexico political donor told me. 

Mad Hildebrandt, meanwhile, fought to the end. But coming from Socorro, a much smaller city than Las Cruces, her base of support was limited, and she faced an uphill climb. At a candidate forum in Las Cruces organized by the Doña Ana County Democratic Party, Peter Ossorio, an adjunct professor of government at NMSU who later endorsed Torres Small, was chosen to moderate. Before Hildebrandt walked on stage, a man passed her briskly and whispered, “You’re dead,” according to Hildebrandt. 

It’s like Chicago politics, but spread across 120,000 square miles.” 

In June, Torres Small won the primary in convincing fashion, with over 70% of the vote. A few months later, The New York Times ran a puff piece on first-time candidates for U.S. House races, and quoted Torres Small. After suing her strongest competition out the race behind someone else’s name and attempting to clear the primary field, she gave the Times a quote that stretched the imagination.

It was potentially fertile ground for Democrats this year. So Torres Small, a former U.S. Senate aide whose husband is in the state’s Legislature, began trying to rustle up the right candidate.

“I called some people,” she said. “I asked a few folks to run.”

Torres Small retweeted the story, as did her campaign manager, Brian Sowyrda.

“Always love seeing the boss get a little ink in a @nytopinion story!” he posted.

Democratic Party candidates Xochitl Torres Small, left, and Michelle Lujan Grisham share a stage at a midterm elections campaign rally in Socorro, New Mexico, last November.

TORRES SMALL WAS HARD TO FOLLOW during the general election, and cautious about exposure. Her campaign rarely sent public announcements of upcoming speaking engagements. Afterwards, they posted carefully curated photos of events online — Torres Small with a sheep, with ducks at the Great American Duck Race in Deming, with the elderly at a diner. When I finally tracked down an event in advance, Brian Sowyrda called me beforehand. He spoke to me as if I were a corporate advertising client. Was there anything, he asked, I’d like Torres Small to talk about when she spoke?

The first campaign event I attended, in August, was held in Hillsboro, a small village on the eastern side of the Gila Wilderness. At an old stone house, Torres Small spoke and took questions. At the time, her stump speech felt a little mechanical and focus-grouped; she frequently glanced upwards, as if looking for her script somewhere in the sky, and fielded questions with a rote “Thank you for that question” before responding. During the primary, Peña had campaigned differently, less careful with his words. “I think it’s a stupid idea,” he once said, when asked about Trump’s border wall. That approach was a sharp contrast to Torres Small, who cautiously avoided straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Was she for Medicare for all? Thank you for that question, I’m for protecting the care we already have. She hunted, she wanted better access to the internet and health care for rural New Mexicans, and, if she had to talk about guns, she wanted improved education about safety, though she avoided mentioning bans. When national outlets covered her campaign, this moderate message — the political strategy — was what most intrigued them: Could moderation coming from a liberal young Hispanic woman flip a conservative district on the border? But mostly I found her positions evasive, careful to avoid committing to anything in plain language. My attention kept drifting to swarms of hummingbirds zipping around feeders behind the house. They looked much happier than I was, oblivious to politicians, far nimbler and more acrobatic.

But her stump’s awkwardness quickly disappeared. Working the crowd afterward, Torres Small was personable, with a nuanced understanding of her district, always smiling and clearly the most intelligent person in the room. I liked her, as did everyone else, but her campaign’s caution never went away. In Hillsboro, when I spoke with Torres Small about access for a short profile, Sowyrda insisted that our first conversation be kept off the record, and then pulled out a tape recorder. I came to see those moments as unfortunate bugs in the campaign — signs of overly cautious control, particularly vulnerable to lawyerly sensibilities.

In Las Cruces, a sign rested proudly inside the doorway of Torres Small’s office: “Las Cruces DCCC Battle Station.” It read like a proclamation of her status as the chosen one, and it made me wince. That sense of entitlement — to a nomination that was in theory democratic — would never stop bothering her critics, though I personally found it less offensive than they did. I viewed Torres Small more sympathetically, as a well-intentioned person navigating a terrible system. Dangling an establishment coronation that brought money and resources in front of aspiring politicians invariably encouraged bad behavior, and exploiting these advantages seemed forgivable. But the Democratic Party’s embrace of these incentives was less admirable. The party prided itself on getting money and favoritism out politics, and promoting the opposite in primaries felt hypocritical. And yet, it was probably unfair to view the DCCC’s behavior in a vacuum either; the amount of money required to run for public office now dictated that fundraising begin early in primaries.

In Las Cruces, a sign rested proudly inside the doorway of Torres Small’s office: “Las Cruces DCCC Battle Station.” It read like a proclamation of her status as the chosen one, and it made me wince. 

Torres Small’s branding, anyway, seemed to be working. On Election Day, The New York Times featured her on The Daily, its popular podcast, and I listened as I drove to the convention center in Las Cruces, where the city’s Democrats were gathering for a party. When I arrived, the room was buzzing, familiar faces from Las Cruces politics everywhere. TV screens were scattered around the room, and the scene reminded me of a game show, of the reality TV series that American politics had become. The bar was serving a cocktail called “The Blue Wave,” a mixture of coconut rum, blue curacao and sour mix that left me with a stomachache the following morning.

At around 11 p.m., Torres Small was a couple thousand votes behind, and multiple outlets had called the race against her. Yvette Herrell, her Republican opponent, gave a victory speech. But in the convention center, Torres Small hadn’t conceded. She worked the room, Brian Sowyrda in tow on his cellphone, looking solemn. By midnight, the Doña Ana County clerk’s office announced that there were still about 8,000 absentee votes to count, most of them from Doña Ana County, the district’s Democratic stronghold. On New Mexico Media Twitter, some of the state’s best political reporters still hadn’t called the race. Torres Small had a chance.

The clerk’s office counted the absentee ballots in a warehouse the next day, with assistance from staffers from both campaigns. It was an odd scene: Lindsey Bachman, Peña’s former campaign manager, had recently been hired as the Doña Ana deputy county clerk, and she was now overseeing a count that might give Torres Small an upset win. If she was aware of the irony, she didn’t show it; she wandered the room, chatting amicably with Sowyrda and with Jeff Steinborn, who was acting as the Torres Small Campaign’s challenger, for ballot oversight. Around 6 p.m., after a full day of counting, Sowyrda left the warehouse and embraced Nathan Small, who’d been pacing outside. With the absentees counted, Torres Small had won by just under 3,000 votes.

Throughout the count, I’d been exchanging texts with Peña, who was watching the results from home. When I left Las Cruces that night, I asked if I could stop by.

“Getting my kiddos bathed up and ready for bed,” he texted back. “What a turn of events though. I am at my daughter’s school tomorrow morning. It’s college day and I am manning the NMSU booth. Tomorrow I am for sure around, might ask for the evening to digest. What an emotional roller coaster.”

FOR MANY OF THOSE PUSHED OUT OF THE PRIMARY, Torres Small’s victory brought complicated emotions. Yvette Herrell’s politics disgusted them, but there was also a sense that the Democratic Party had manipulated democracy, and that Torres Small had embraced its meddling. Everyone dealt with their frustrations differently. Martinez stayed away from Indivisible meetings. Hildebrandt cut her hair short, and didn’t vote for Torres Small. For Peña, humor helped; he now signed his emails with a single ñ, and his brother had baseball caps made with the emblem. A few months after the election, a Peña supporter sent a letter to Michelle Lujan Grisham and Jeff Steinborn, who was heading an ethics commission in the Legislature, seeking to reform the election statute used to disqualify Peña. A boilerplate response from the governor’s office was sent back in response.

Still, Peña expressed conflicted feelings about what had happened. As an activist, he survived by constantly looking forward and never looking back. During the general, he’d forced himself to make fundraising calls for Democrats and Torres Small. Doing otherwise, he felt, would betray his constituents, who were still owed a Democratic representative. Following her victory, he posed in pictures with her, along with colleagues and friends. “Just smile and wave, boys … just smile and wave,” he told me, describing his thoughts at the time.

Whenever we spoke, Peña was hesitant to complain, but a restlessness always percolated in the background. “There’s something broken here, right?” he once said. “Money shouldn’t be this important.” And it was hard to forget what had happened, since his life was filled with constant reminders. One day, when Angel went to pick up groceries from Walmart, the store’s computer system didn’t take the tilde correctly, and the cashier couldn’t find his reservation. Hotel bookings often got messed up as well. When the midterms approached, Peña began hiking obsessively, and campaign season nearly drove him mad. After the election, he went hunting with his daughter. They stalked a buck but it ran away.

Others swallowed what had happened, for practical reasons. Last winter, Ashley Beyer, the volunteer who’d gone through Peña’s petitions for the Morrow lawsuit, suddenly stopped taking my calls, and, soon after, Torres Small’s office hired her. Privately, Baake had admitted he regretted succumbing to pressure to drop out; Torres Small, he lamented, had changed the platform they’d discussed during their December meeting, before he left the race. As the election approached, Baake began feeling that Torres Small would say anything to get elected. Still, the day before the election, he changed his Facebook photo to a picture of himself with Torres Small, her campaign slogan displayed across the frame. Co-option was probably a better career move, easier than protest, and Baake was now working in political circles close to her in Las Cruces. Activists close to Baake said that he later told them Torres Small’s people promised to help with his campaign expenses, though the money never materialized. Baake did not talk to me for this story, though a close associate of his denied these claims.

A woman stands in front of a campaign poster at a Democratic Party rally in Socorro, New Mexico, shortly before the 2018 midterm elections.

PROPONENTS OF PRIMARY FAVORITISM STRESS that it’s necessary to win house majorities, however dirty or unseemly they may become. This view is almost unquestioned in circles of D.C. political consultants, but the best available research from political science suggests exactly the opposite — that picking favorites in congressional races doesn’t increase winning percentages in the general. “Briefly,” Hans Hassell told me, summarizing, “candidates that are the favorite of the party in the primary don’t do better than outsider candidates, and may actually do worse.”

In research that is still ongoing, Hassell has surveyed 812 primaries in competitive swing districts between 2004 and 2016 without an incumbent, identifying party favorites based on which candidate shared the most donors in common with the DCCC or NRCC. Party picks won the general election only 26.1% of the time. Those without party support — or with less of it — won the general 53% of the time. In even tighter swing districts, party favorites who won primaries did slightly worse, winning 25.9% of the time, compared with outsider candidates, who won 43% of the time.

“Briefly, candidates that are the favorite of the party in the primary don’t do better than outsider candidates, and may actually do worse.”

For party gatekeepers and consultants, this fact — that even with decades of experience in politics, they might not be any better at picking winners than primary voters — is uncomfortable. When I shared my own experiences reporting this story, listening to political strategists insist that they could pick the best, most electable candidates, Hassell described similar conversations in his own academic research.

“I wholeheartedly believe that the DCCC really thinks it’s trying to pick the best candidate. Whether they’re good at it is an entirely different question — and that I’m skeptical of,” he told me.

Hassell’s findings, though surprising to some, build on a strong current of thought in political science that many political professionals don’t like to acknowledge: that campaign strategy and candidate selection, or even ideological bent, probably matter far less in determining the outcome of general elections than larger fundamental phenomena — the economy, social movements, a president’s first congressional midterm, or demographic changes. Donald Trump’s presidency and the grassroots opposition to his administration, in other words, are likely more responsible for Democrats winning 40 seats than the DCCC’s ability to pick the right favorites with the right ideological hue in primaries. But it’s easy for the DCCC and party elites to mix up the causal variables to justify their tactics — especially when they win, as with Torres Small and the Blue Wave she was part of. 

Yet fundamentals are exactly the kinds of forces that candidates, campaigns, consultants and parties can’t control. Journalists don’t like to acknowledge them much either, preferring to chronicle campaign maneuvers to the American public as if every move, pivot or scandal is an exciting game-changer for election outcomes. Political consultants, meanwhile, have little to gain from acknowledging them, since they’re paid to overcome fundamentals with strategic genius. And as for the DCCC, doing something rather than nothing in primaries is harder to pull off PR-wise, not to mention psychologically, since humans generally feel better when they feel in control. “These committees are just incredibly risk-averse,” Casey Dominguez, a professor of political science at the University of San Diego, told me.

FOR THE MOST PART, PARTIES KEEP QUIET about their involvement in primaries, or frame programs like Red to Blue carefully. “The committee has to be very careful not to put its thumb on the scale very often, and if it does, to not do it publicly,” a former chair of the DCCC told me.  Many argue this makes concerns around the party’s intervention irrelevant, since most voters don’t know what goes on. But this dismissal ignores important cracks beneath the surface that the Democratic Party would probably be unwise to ignore. When strong primary fields — and thus more substantive debates — are cleared, fissures grow deeper, swept under the rug and gilded over, and suppressed talent can grow discouraged.

Those tensions were evident in Las Cruces, which was still navigating the effects of its own political transformation. In the mid-2000s, the city’s first Progressive Voter Alliance was founded, and its momentum pushed the city council further left. Many of its leaders were seen as transplants from elsewhere — the liberal north, or from outside the state — and tended to be on the whiter side. Their rise in power sometimes clashed with older, more moderate local factions and organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

“I call them so-called progressives,” Pablo Martinez, a moderate 11th-generation New Mexican and LULAC’s state director, told me. “They’re the ones that come from back east and they’ve come into New Mexico and want to run, and they haven’t even lived here. There’s a lot of bad race relations, and the party has just kind of hush-hushed them.”

Indivisible was a recent addition to the mix as well, its politics less defined but with a similar demographic makeup. A Democratic primary many considered rigged only made these tensions worse, especially after 2016. “That Bernie-Hillary divide, people pretend it doesn’t exist, but it’s still there,” Tony Martinez, the candidate discouraged by Ritner’s fundraising targets, told me. Pablo Martinez had encouraged both Torres Small and Martinez to run, and though Torres Small’s eventual victory thrilled him, he echoed concerns about primary intervention — that it furthered the divides in the district.

“In future elections, if they want to gain the respect of people, they should play by fair rules,” he told me. “If we’re going to be democratic, let’s be democratic. Let’s be consistent, and not show preferential treatment to anyone.” 

“If you do (primary intervention) in an insensitive fashion, you’re harming your relationship with people on the ground, with people in those communities,” Robert Boatright, a professor at Clark University, added. “If you’ve got a year like 2018 where you have many people eager to run, you want to make sure that the people who don’t run, or don’t get the support of the political elite, still wind up feeling good about the political process, and are willing to support you down the road.” The occasional emergency, of course, probably justified party intervention, he added; a figure, say, like Alabama’s Roy Moore could alienate enough voters to cost parties a safe seat. Otherwise, though, primary meddling could be risky.

District 2, however, had been a far cry from this situation. The early field had been full of good candidates, yet the party and Torres Small had still worked hard to clear them. Why not have the DCCC jump into the race after the primary finished many asked? Primary intervention often discouraged good people from getting involved in politics, hurting the party’s long-term health and sometimes leading to disenchantment. That certainly applied to Martinez, who withdrew from Indivisible meetings, and others described jaded feelings as well. On Twitter, two pictures were circulating comparing the incoming Republican class — comically white and male, in a country that was neither — to the Democratic one, a historically young, energetic and diverse coalition, just as Peña had hoped for. But judging by what had happened in District 2, it was hard to trust them completely. Faces had changed, but was the nature of politics really changing that much?

But the loss of trust in institutions was what most troubled me. I often sensed a growth of circumstantial conspiracy thinking among Torres Small’s detractors on the left. It was reasonable to conclude the primary was rigged, but some used it a diving board to take bigger leaps. Like many Republicans, Yvette Herrell accused Democrats of rigging absentee ballots, and hired a team to investigate. They found no proof of conspiratorial wrongdoing, but many liberals who disliked Torres Small’s behavior in the primary weren’t convinced. I heard other theories I couldn’t confirm, and I knew liberals so distrustful of Hillary Clinton that they bought into QAnon conspiracy theories, which felt dangerous. When conservatives had grown disenchanted with their own side’s establishment and institutions, Donald Trump hijacked the party and won the presidency.

Others who excused the primary’s politics reduced themselves to the weakest of arguments — that, ethically, Republican sins made any tinkering in primaries by Democrats pale in comparison. 

Others who excused the primary’s politics reduced themselves to the weakest of arguments — that, ethically, Republican sins made any tinkering in primaries by Democrats pale in comparison. The Republican primary in District 2 had certainly been abhorrent, devolving into a contest over who could shower Donald Trump with the most flattery. I’d reported from China for many years, and it surpassed any sycophancy I’d seen Chinese officials display toward Xi Jinping. But citing Republican sin to let the Democratic Party do whatever it wanted, immune to criticism, was a weak justification for a process that left scars and resentment among its base, and it didn’t appear to increase the party’s chance of winning.

The week before the election, I went hiking with Peña in the Organ Mountains, and I brought up an audio clip that leaked to The Intercept, whose frequent coverage of the DCCC many activists often mentioned to me. In it, Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House whip, asks Levi Tillemann to drop out of a primary in Colorado, to clear the way for the DCCC’s pick, Jason Crow. Hoyer tells Tillemann that the DCCC picked Crow long ago, and that he wasn’t involved in the decision, but that he’ll still be backing Crow. “Frankly, that happens in life all the time,” he tells Tillemann.

Wasn’t that the problem? Peña asked, as we hiked up the trail, stopping to look back over Las Cruces. The ones who relied on favoritism and manipulation always went to Washington. And didn’t that make them the weak ones?

I left early to catch Torres Small’s campaign, and Peña kept hiking upwards,

Senator Tom Udall, D, holds up a sample ballot while addressing an audience at a campaign event at Stellar Coffee Co. in Roswell, New Mexico. Xochitl Torres-Small, D, stands to his right.

IN CONGRESS, TORRES SMALL has governed largely as she campaigned. She joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderates, and became an honorary co-chair for Third Way, a centrist think tank that frequently draws the ire of progressives. In February, she voted for a bill requiring federal background checks for gun sales, but voted against closing the Charleston Loophole, which allows gun buyers to purchase firearms if checks take more than three days. On impeachment, she has remained incredibly cautious, and instead continues to champion safer issues, like improving rural health care and internet access. This moderate approach seems eminently reasonable for a swing district and consistent with her campaign. But amid grumblings among liberals that she isn’t doing enough, some have already begun looking for a primary challenger, and her moderation has reinforced progressive accusations about the DCCC — that the committee only picks moderates who can fundraise but don’t stand strongly for anything. (Hassell’s research, interestingly, brings these progressive assumptions into question as well. Party picks don’t necessarily skew more moderate, he’s found; there are lot of other variables that affect the selection process.)

Peña, meanwhile, still works with Torres Small frequently. “Generally working to make her more appealing to the conservation folks given her lack of action on other things,” he told me this fall, before helping organize a public-lands event for her in the Gila. Recently, he’d visited her office in Washington, looking for commitments on the border and lands protection, but Torres Small was hesitant. “Took the middle, didn’t commit to anything. Election season coming up. You know how it goes,” he told me.

In Las Cruces, Torres Small’s closest supporters have spent a lot of time tempering such expectations. They stress that, in such a moderate district, Torres Small has to govern as a pragmatic centrist — she can’t be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Steve Pearce, her Tea Party predecessor, was a disaster by comparison, and it was refreshing to see Torres Small at so many town halls, they argued. But others found her centrism disappointing, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the party’s tactics in the primary had hardened these resentments. The election had anointed her as a kind of savior, a model for how to win a conservative rural Western swing district, but this crowning felt inconclusive; the party hadn’t given others a fair chance. If they had, I suspected her critics might now have viewed her as more legitimate.

The DCCC, meanwhile, emboldened by its 2018 wave, has shown little interest in staying out of primaries. “It’s a complete non-issue inside the party. It’s like asking baseball players if it’s controversial to go to spring training,” the head of a D.C. think tank that works with the DCCC told me. In March, the committee announced plans to tighten its control even further; any political consultant who contracted for challengers of 2020 incumbents would be taken off the DCCC’s approved vendor lists it provided to its picks. The Democratic Party has also rewarded the DCCC’s 2018 leaders: A few weeks after the election, Luján received a promotion to assistant House speaker, and, in April, declared his run for Tom Udall’s open Senate seat in 2020, with Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement.

In New Mexico, his chief opponent on the Democratic side was Maggie Toulouse Oliver. She dropped out in October, but it was strange to watch the narrative created around the race while it lasted. Toulouse Oliver was largely portrayed as the underdog progressive, and Luján as the establishment favorite. But both played important roles in derailing Peña’s candidacy on behalf of the Democratic Party establishment, and I viewed these distinctions as completely manufactured ones, emblematic of the fickleness of politics. A new race, a new narrative constructed, moving like a freight train, previous maneuvers forgotten or hidden. And the squeamishness of American political professionals to discuss these issues always disappointed me. In the past, I’d done the occasional story on sensitive human rights issues in China, yet I’d found discussions of internal Democratic politics in Las Cruces to be even less transparent, and absurdly sensitive for a democracy. The Torres Small campaign declined requests for comment on this story, and, when I asked a DCCC spokesperson specific questions about the organization’s policies, I received the following response: “The DCCC is proud to have led the charge to flip the House of Representatives in 2018, which has allowed House Democrats to put families and workers first, by fighting for lower healthcare and prescription drug costs, higher wages and more.”

For the most part, Peña had moved on, though he’d briefly considered running against Torres Small, and he was still paying off his campaign debts. He hoped to run for public office again someday, but other opportunities lay ahead. This year, in October, he left the Conservation Lands Foundation for new nonprofit work, and one day I called to ask about the business he and Nathan Small owned. Since the primary, Peña had wanted to dissolve it, but he and Small had been stalling. The two were still cordial, but there was a new distance between them. The memory of the election, of feeling undermined by a close friend, of the ugliness of politics — dissolving the business would remind Peña of everything in the past, and these thoughts contradicted his instincts as an activist, to move forward.

When I called him, Peña was driving back home from northern New Mexico. “Brutal, man,” he’d said, discussing the trekking business, and then politics. “Just brutal.” 

Will Ford is a journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund. 


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