ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico voters confronted a stark choice between gubernatorial candidates in Tuesday's election as two members of Congress competed to replace a termed-out Republican in a state where frustrations have run high over lagging economic opportunities and troubled public schools.
Voter turnout quickly surpassed participation in the 2014 midterms, as statewide candidates converged on Albuquerque to await election results.
A victory by Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham would open the door for initiatives to boost solar- and wind-energy production, authorize recreational marijuana, institute gun safety measures such background checks on private sales and to overhaul funding for public education and preschool.
Republican Steve Pearce waged a political campaign to alleviate poverty through infrastructure spending and more vocation training while pledging to never raise taxes and implement work requirements for Medicaid recipients.
A supporter of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, Pearce spoke little of the president on the campaign trail this year in a state that shares a border with Mexico and where Hillary Clinton won by an 8 percent margin. Pearce says he opposes Trump's border wall project in favor of stricter surveillance and patrolling.
Lujan Grisham has sought to link Pearce to a variety of Trump policies, denouncing Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Lujan Grisham took a leading role among congressional Democrats in denouncing Trump's immigration policies this year after U.S. authorities separated immigrant parents from their children at the border.
Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political scientist, said immigration concerns carry less weight in New Mexico than other border states.
"That is simply because New Mexico does not have nearly as many undocumented immigrants as other border states," he said.
On Election Day, Lujan Grisham combined campaigning and lunch at Barelas Coffee House, a gathering place for politicians and their supporters in a traditional Hispanic neighborhood in Albuquerque. She voted with relatives in the afternoon at a North Valley middle school. Pearce visited Albuquerque polling places and a Vietnamese restaurant, after voting weeks ago in his hometown of Hobbs.
New Mexico voters also are deciding on two congressional seats left open by Pearce and Lujan Grisham, a U.S. Senate seat with an incumbent Democrat and a long list of statewide races. Two ballot initiatives could allow the state to streamline judicial appeal and create a statewide ethics commission to oversee public officials' conduct.
The election could restore unified Democratic control of the governor's office and Legislature for the first time since 2010. Democrats are defending a 38-32 majority in the state House.
Gov. Susana Martinez, who never endorsed or campaigned for Pearce, is prohibited from running for a third consecutive term.
Martinez broke with most Republican governors to expand Medicaid in her first term and won re-election in a landslide, but her popularity waned amid limited progress toward improving public education and reducing poverty.
Pearce, a 71-year-old Vietnam-era Air Force pilot and former oilfield entrepreneur from a conservative stronghold in the state's southeast, invoked childhood brushes with poverty as a son of Texas sharecroppers. And he cited his business acumen as a qualification for improving economic opportunity.
Pearce proposed a system of tolls on private companies to rebuild roads that have deteriorated under heavy traffic from southeastern New Mexico's booming oil industry.
Lujan Grisham has touted her background leading state health agencies under three governors, both Democratic and Republican. She also highlighted her past ownership role in a consulting firm that runs a statewide high-risk insurance pool for the severely ill — as Pearce, in a series of attack ads, condemned the arrangement as self-serving and "corrupt."
The state's next governor will inherit a bulging budget surplus for the coming fiscal year — an estimated at $1.2 billion in government income beyond current annual spending obligations of $6.3 billion from the state general fund.
Most of the budget windfall is linked to the state's oil and natural gas sector, whose fortunes fluctuate wildly with the gyrations of international oil markets — complicating efforts to make sustained investments in teacher salaries.
The next governor and incoming Legislature will confront pressure from the judiciary to shore up educational opportunities for minority and low-income students. A recent court order described widespread violations of constitutional rights to an adequate education.
Lujan Grisham said she would drop the state's legal appeal and work with the Legislature to provide more resources to public schools. Pearce declined to say exactly how he would handle the court case, but says teachers should have greater resources and autonomy.
With a victory by Lujan Grisham, the governor's office would pass from one Latina leader to another.
The congresswoman has ties to a prominent political family and traces her New Mexico ancestry back 12 generations to the Spanish-colonial era prior to U.S. acquisition of the region in the Mexican-American War.
Pearce ran once previously for statewide office, losing an open Senate race in 2008 to Sen. Tom Udall.
Pearce returned to Capitol Hill after a two-year hiatus, as Republicans recaptured the congressional majority amid Tea Part fervor.
For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics