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Local Dem leader says trip won't be enough to turn tide in NM

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FARMINGTON — Republican elected and party officials in San Juan County expressed a mix of anticipation and surprise at the planned visit by President Trump to Rio Rancho on Sept. 16, and they hope his trip to New Mexico helps turn the electoral tide here in 2020.

The president's visit was announced late last week. Many of those same local officials said they would have loved to attend his rally but it was too late for them to change their previously arranged plans to be out of town on that date.

But that doesn't mean San Juan County won't be well represented at the event. Drew Degner, chairman of the Republican Party of San Juan County, said he was aware of a contingent of approximately 100 people from the county, many of them employed in the energy industry, who will be traveling to Rio Rancho for the rally.

Unfortunately, Degner said, he won't be one of them. He said he already had made plans to be out of town on Sept. 16, and by the time he learned of the rally, it was too late to change them.

But he was enthusiastic about the visit and said he appreciates Trump's focus on the energy sector of the economy, noting that is something that pays dividends locally, as well as across New Mexico.

"It's very important for San Juan County," Degner said. "It's a driving force for the economy in San Juan County, and it has the same effect on the state."

He expects the president's visit to provide a boost to GOP efforts to improve their lot in New Mexico after the party suffered big losses here in the 2018 mid-term elections.

"I think we're going to turn New Mexico red in 2020," he said.

Republican County Commissioner Jack Fortner isn't as bullish about the GOP's election chances here next year. But he said Trump's presence in Rio Rancho will only help those prospects.

"I think it's too early to predict that," he said of the president's odds of carrying New Mexico, a state he lost to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and that the Republican presidential nominee hasn't carried since 2004. "If he wants New Mexico to be in play, he's doing the right thing by coming to New Mexico. He'll certainly carry San Juan County, but whether he carries New Mexico is a work in progress."

State Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the president's visit speaks volumes about whether he thinks he can carry New Mexico next year.

"He is not stupid, and he wouldn't be coming to New Mexico if he didn't see the value in this," Sharer said, adding that he thinks Trump's visit will improve not only his own chances in the state, but those of every down-ticket Republican candidate.

"I don't think the people of New Mexico as individual human beings aren't nearly as socialistic as our current state government is, and that's why it's worth him being here and talking to New Mexicans," said Sharer, who will be attending Trump's rally.

State Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, echoed Sharer's belief that Trump's presence would help generate enthusiasm for other GOP candidates in New Mexico, and he said that enthusiasm works both ways.

"It's to his benefit to have a strong group of local candidates," Neville said, explaining that a strong Republican ticket from top to bottom in the state would help generate good GOP voter turnout. He also said returning more Republicans to legislative positions in next year's election would help ensure the adoption of a Trump-like agenda in New Mexico.

"You get a lot more done when you have a whole state occupied down the line by loyal troops," he said.

But he's not pretending it will be easy for his party to turn the state red.

"It's going to be a tough battle," he said. "I don't have any illusions. If we can toughen up across the board, maybe we can get there."

Red, blue or purple?

MP Schildmeyer, the chairwoman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, said she thinks Trump's visit is designed to boost the odds of the GOP capturing the New Mexico U.S. Senate seat that will be up for grabs with the planned retirement of Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.

"To me, it reeks of desperation," she said, explaining she believes Trump fears the Republicans will lose control of the U.S. Senate the same way they lost the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

She dismissed the notion that Trump himself could carry the state in 2020.

"Zero," she said, describing the president's chances. "I feel that strongly. We Democrats fully intend to get out our vote and help take back the Senate."

She acknowledged local Democrats face a much greater challenge in turning out a majority of county voters for the party's presidential nominee next year, as well as building a larger presence among San Juan County's elected officials.

"That, I think, is a long shot, to turn San Juan County blue," she said. "Purple is a lot more of a chance. I don't think it's a big chance, but that's what we're working toward."

Standing tall for the wall

Although San Juan County is hundreds of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, local Republicans are supportive of the president's repeated calls for the construction of a border wall.

"The border issues are real, and they're devastating a lot of communities down there," Neville said.

Fortner supported Neville's statement, claiming the safety concerns of Americans who live on the border are legitimate.

"When safety is an issue, I don't know how you argue against it," he said.

Neville said he understands why so many residents of other countries want to come to America, but he said the United States can't afford to let the status quo continue.

He said it needs to be done in an orderly and proper way "so we can do it right."

Sharer said he anticipates hearing a great deal of pushback on the president's border policies from people protesting the Rio Rancho rally on Sept. 11. But he thinks Trump is simply doing what needs to be done.

"I know people are going to be screaming about hatred of immigrants, but if they would look at it as part of the broader picture, they would see how (undocumented immigration) hurts Americans," he said, explaining that the willingness of many immigrants to work for low wages drives down the earnings of others and makes the country weaker. "I think he needs to say those things. I know what progressives are going to say — that it's all about hate — but it's not."

Sharer said he knows the U.S. needs immigrants, and he believes Trump knows that, too.

"He's not stopping immigration," Sharer said. "But all the other side can do is scream at the top of their lungs about hatred. And that bothers me."

Degner said he thinks having a secure border and stemming the flow of undocumented immigration are very important to the United States.

"We're a nation of laws," he said. "We want everybody to follow the law."

The county's GOP chairman said his only disappointment about having Trump come to Rio Rancho is that he won't be making a stop in San Juan County. But he noted the election is a long way away, and he thinks Trump fans in the northwest corner of the state don’t have to worry about being bypassed. Someone from the Trump family is likely to make an appearance here before November 2020, he believes.

"I don't think this is last we'll see of him," Degner said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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