Sept. 28, 2010— -- New Mexico is one place women are poised to make history this election season, with either Democrat Lt. Gov. Diane Denish or Republican district attorney Susana Martinez likely to become the state's first female governor.
It is only the third time in U.S. history two women have gone head-to-head for a state's top job. The Oklahoma gubernatorial race this year is the fourth.
But who voters choose in New Mexico on Nov. 5 may be as significant as the milestone itself, signaling just how deep anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment runs among voters this election year.
Denish, who's served with Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson since 2002, is running in a state where Democrats have a 50 to 32 percent edge over Republicans among registered voters. President Obama carried New Mexico with 57 percent of the vote in 2008.
Yet Denish has trailed in several recent polls, burdened by ties to Richardson. He has become highly unpopular, brought down by the struggling economy, a looming state budget deficit and swirling allegations of corruption.
"We know what we have had the last eight years," said Martinez, who cast herself as the candidate of "bold change" at a debate in Albuquerque Sunday night. "We have to look at those eight years and make sure we don't have a third Bill Richardson-Diane Denish administration."
But Democrats say Lt. Gov. Denish has always been "her own person," and they're fighting back, running TV ads painting the Republican Martinez, a Texas native, as an outsider with ties to corporate and "Texas backers."
"She's not talking about what really matters to New Mexico families, about education, energy, environment -- and most of all she's not talking about jobs and job creation," said Denish of Martinez. "She has a very different agenda. She's fighting for big corporations, the people that are bankrolling her campaign."
One Democratic poll released Monday shows Denish neck and neck with Martinez, and campaign finance records give her an edge with more than $1.3 million in the bank heading into the final five weeks of the campaign.
She will also get a boost Thursday from Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to headline a fundraiser in Albuquerque.
Battleground New Mexico
While much attention has focused on key House and Senate races ahead of the midterm elections, national party organizations have also been pouring cash into New Mexico for control of a governorship that has been in Democratic hands since 2002.
The Democratic Governors Association has donated at least $190,000 to the Denish campaign and has aired three ads statewide at saturation levels. The Republican Governor's Association has invested close to $750,000 in the Martinez campaign, including a $500,000 check cut in June.
Martinez, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin during the primary, has touted her record as a tough prosecutor and fiscal conservative and promised to shake up state government.
Republicans also hope her brand of conservatism, which includes opposition to same-sex marriage, legalized abortion and illegal immigration, will appeal to Hispanics, who outnumber whites in the state. Martinez would be the country's first Hispanic female governor.
Meanwhile, Denish, a former small business owner who opposes same-sex marriage and favors rescinding drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, has pushed a populist message with an emphasis on education and expanding college scholarship opportunities.
"If Denish can keep her high level support with Democrats, turn them out, and win over undecided voters, it's difficult to see a clear path to victory for Martinez given the way registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in New Mexico," said Democratic pollster Stephen Clermont in a memo to the Denish campaign.
But given the enthusiasm gap seen in several national polls, that could be a big "if."
"Martinez came in with a line that is almost always powerful after eight years of any administration: 'I represent change,'" wrote nonpartisan New Mexico political blogger Joe Monahan on his blog. "Denish has to do more -- much more -- to make New Mexicans feel that change is a threat -- not a relief. She has a month to do it."