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New Mexico Telegram » Featured » New state GOP chair and relationship with McCleskey could be key

New state GOP chair and relationship with McCleskey could be key

Many parties change leadership after having a worse-than-expected election cycle, and the Republican Party of New Mexico seems to be no different.

The Republican Party of New Mexico State Central Committee gathered on Saturday to elect new party leadership and elected GOP activist John Billingsley from Lincoln County as its new party chair. Billingsley replaces former Hobbs mayor Monty Newman in the position.

Billingsley was in the news before the vote for party chairman for penning a scathing opinion column criticizing Jay McCleskey, Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political adviser, for how he approached the November elections.

Multi-million dollar TV campaigns and mailers go a long way, but they don’t take the place of direct personal engagement in our communities and having frank but civil conversations with people about how we can alleviate our national, state, and local problems.

I envision a state Republican Party that encourages county organizations to develop innovative outreach efforts that work best for their communities and a party that does not wait until an election to get involved with business groups, churches, charities, and neighborhood organizations where people who agree with us on the issues exist. In other words, we shouldn’t be building coalitions, only to abandon them right after the election and then seek to rebuild them in the next election cycle.

The opinion piece that appeared in papers throughout the state was an unusual one for someone running for the state party chair — considering he was criticizing one of Martinez’s inner circle and Martinez has extremely high marks among the Republican Party faithful in the state.

McCleskey has faced criticism over his aggressive and expensive campaigns in a year that Republicans expected to have a chance to take the House of Representatives for the first time in decades. The Republicans did manage to take out some Democratic incumbents, including senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, and Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana.

But despite the initial optimism, the party lost ground in the House of Representatives after redistricting that many said was favorable for Republicans.

And on the federal level, only Steve Pearce in the conservative 2nd congressional District won his election. Heather Wilson lost in the statewide election, leaving two Democratic U.S. Senators hailing from New Mexico for at least the next two years.

The tug of war between some factions in the state party and McCleskey echoes the strained relationship on a national level for Republican. In that case, Super PACs and non-profits unconstrained by campaign finance limits took over some of the operations traditionally run by the Republican National Committee — and without much success.

Billingsley, at least as offered an olive branch towards McCleskey.

From the Santa Fe New Mexican reporting on comments Billingsley made to reporters:

Asked he if thought of the chairman’s race as a referendum on McCleskey’s style of campaigning, Billingsley said, “No, I think that’s just one of the issues that was brought forward. I personally don’t think we can do without people like Jay McCleskey as strategists, because they have a very definitive role in working with candidates. And sometimes they get, I guess you could say, a little overzealous. But the reason is because that is their job. Now it is my job to sit down and work with them and help control that part of it.”

Billingsley himself has worn the hat of running campaigns — he ran the unsuccessful 2008 U.S. Senate campaign of Steve Pearce.

It is hard to imagine that McCleskey will cease to wield significant power in the state Republican Party through the 2014 elections. He will still run Martinez’s reelection effort that will be at the top of the ticket and he has won two big elections for Republicans in races that Republicans have had little to no success in (the Albuquerque mayoral race in 2013 and the gubernatorial race in 2014).

But the recent discord in the state Republican party came to a head with some of McCleskey’s hard-charging tactics in 2012. Former state party chairman Harvey Yates had his own criticism over McCleskey’s tactics.

McCleskey heavily targeted — to ultimate success — Jennings. Yates supported Jennings despite their difference in party affiliations — probably because of Jennings’ role as one of the most conservative Democratic legislators. And Yates did not support the Reform ads saying that they were not true and that the half-true ads “diminish the possibility that a legislator will judiciously weigh the advantages and disadvantages to the state of proposed legislation.”

Odds are that Republicans will solidify around Martinez — and by extension, McCleskey — as the 2014 election nears. If Billingsley and McCleskey can work together, it will make things more difficult for Democrats on all levels.

Written by

Matthew Reichbach has blogged about New Mexico politics since 2006. Matthew was a co-founder of New Mexico FBIHOP with his brother and part of the original hirings at the groundbreaking website the New Mexico Independent. Matthew has covered events such as the Democratic National Convention and Netroots Nation. In addition to politics, Matthew is an avid sports fan, especially of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and TV fan.

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