Ryan Lowery is an award-winning investigative journalist who covers politics for The Paper. He has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Source NM, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others.

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As New Mexico’s June 7 primary election inches closer, attack ads have invaded televisions and the words used on the campaign trail have turned sharper, too.

However, the effectiveness of negative campaigning is unproven, according to one political expert, and the use of negative ads can be a potential indicator of who’s ahead in key races or, at the very least, of who’s behind.

State Rep. Rebecca Dow, who’s vying for the Republican nomination for governor, has used television ads to accuse her top opponent, Mark Ronchetti, of not being enough like former President Donald Trump. Or at least not as like Trump as she is.

Though studied by scholars, the effectiveness of these types of attacks has not been determined, and according to Jessica Feezell, an associate professor with the University of New Mexico’s political science department, negative ads may even cause some voters to stay home on election day.

“We have very little empirical evidence that negative campaigns are effective,” Feezell said. “In fact, there’s a host of scholarship that would actually say they’re detrimental — that negative campaigns and attack ads only serve to reduce political efficacy and trust in government.”

One of Dow’s recent ads called Ronchetti, who is a former meteorologist for KRQE-TV, a “climate change activist” and a “never Trumper.” The ad focuses on a statement made by Ronchetti during a 2019 climate workshop at UNM when Ronchetti said he “used to be a Republican until the orange one,” a reference to then-President Trump.

Dow’s ad is also replete with indications that she is more like Trump than Ronchetti, a strategy that Feezell said makes it easy for some voters to choose a candidate.

“Trump is a very easy cue for voters. When candidates say ‘I’m for Trump’ or ‘I’m anti-Trump,’ that sends a very low-cost signal to the voters about who this candidate is,” she said. “You don’t have to know a lot about politics to know that you like or do not like Trump, so if you know that a candidate is closely aligned with him, or the furthest thing from him, that’s a really easy cue for voters to take.”

So far, Ronchetti hasn’t issued ads directly responding to Dow’s attacks, though he has launched attack ads aimed at Dow. He’s also attacked policies put in place by the administrations of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and President Joe Biden.

Many of Ronchetti’s ads have instead focused more on policy, particularly the border and crime in New Mexico.

“It seems to me like he’s moved beyond the primary,” Feezell said. “He feels confident enough that he doesn’t need to win over Republican voters so much, so that signals to me that he feels pretty confident in his positioning, and he’s working toward the balance — working to win over moderate Democrats.”

Beyond the attack ads, rhetoric on the campaign trail has been negative as well, including heated comments made during a recent televised debate that included all five GOP candidates for governor: Dow; Ronchetti; Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block; former Cuba Mayor Ethel Maharg; and Greg Zanetti, a financial adviser and retired brigadier general.

The debate aired on KOAT-TV May 20, with all five candidates participating via Zoom due to a policy put in place by KOAT and its parent company, Hearst Television, which requires anyone entering the studio to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

It was not stated which candidate or candidates had not received the vaccine.

With the tone of Ronchetti’s ads suggesting confidence that he will be named the Republican nominee for governor, the actions of other candidates at the debate suggested they consider Ronchetti the frontrunner as well.

In the second half of the hour-long debate, each candidate was allowed to pose a question to any other candidate on the panel. Three of Ronchetti’s four opponents chose to use their time to question him.

Dow went first, using her allotted time to parrot her recent television ads, blasting Ronchetti for saying negative things about Trump.

Ronchetti’s response seemed to be prepared ahead of time, indicating he’d anticipated the question and had crafted a response long before the debate.

When it was Ronchetti’s turn to pose a question, he turned not to Dow, but to Maharg, asking her what should be done to help small towns in the state.

Using a question from a KOAT viewer, the five candidates were asked how they would support people who’ve been evacuated from their homes due to wildfires. They were also asked if they believed climate change was responsible for the recent fires across the state.

Neither question was directly answered, and most of the panel used their response time to blame federal land managers and Gov. Lujan Grisham for the fires.

Ronchetti meanwhile blamed the fires on “horrendous policy, especially extreme environmentalism.” He also said, “We have well above average precipitation all across the state.”

It was a comment many online took issue with, including Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary.

Sackett, on Twitter, noted the state’s extreme drought conditions and posted a tweet from meteorologist Grant Tosterud — who replaced Ronchetti as KRQE’s chief meteorologist. Tosterud’s tweet stated New Mexico is experiencing the worst drought in the country, with nearly 85 percent of the state considered to be in extreme drought.

His tweet had been posted the morning of May 20, hours before the debate aired, and included a data visualization graphic from the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Lujan Grisham’s campaign issued a statement immediately following the airing of the debate, calling the debate a “disaster” that underscored why Lujan Grisham “is the best choice to lead New Mexico.”

As proof of the governor’s qualifications, her campaign cited accomplishments like economic relief checks, free college and an increase in pay for New Mexico State Police officers.

Regardless of which Republican candidate is chosen to face Lujan Grisham in the general election, Feezell said she expects GOP candidates in most races to attach themselves to things that resonate with their base. And if by November that’s still Trump, she said, candidates are likely to focus less on Trump the person and more on his ideas.

“I think that a lot of his ideas resonated, and continue to resonate, with Republican voters,” she said. “I would forecast that we’ll start to see similar tones and topics in the midterm and in the next general election, perhaps hearing a little bit less about him in particular.”