Up for Debate: How Spanish Fluency Could Impact the New Mexico Gubernatorial Race

Derek Markham/Flickr

Derek Markham/Flickr–The race for the governor’s seat in New Mexico brings a lot of contemporary political issues to the fore

The upcoming election for governor of New Mexico has created a tug-of-war over Hispanic votes.

The sitting governor is a Republican Hispanic (and female) and her challenger is a White Democrat (and male). How the two candidates use the Spanish language to try to capture the votes of Hispanic and Latino New Mexicans could determine the race’s outcome.

A Key Race

With so much commotion over this November’s midterm Congressional elections, it’s easy to forget about the hotly contested gubernatorial races unfolding nationwide. New Mexico is producing one of the most notable of these contests, as light coverage from the press has belied the historical and cultural significance of this partisan battle.

New Mexico presents an interesting case, as its demographics have long been uniquely diverse. In 2013, the U.S. Census reported that the population of New Mexico was about 47% Hispanic or Latino, 39% Caucasian, and 10% Native American–with the remaining 4% Black or Asian.

Given these figures, it’s not surprising that in New Mexico about 36% of households speak a language other than English at home–16% more than the national average. Also unsurprising is that, for the most part, that other language is Spanish.

Who Are the Political Players?

With its unique political landscape, New Mexico’s race for governor is turning out to be an interesting one. On one side is Susana Martinez, the state’s current governor seek re-election. A Republican, Martinez has built her campaign on concerns such as education and childcare reform.

But because she sides with the GOP on many issues, Martinez sometimes risks alienating her voter base, a largely Hispanic population whose interests are often at odds with official GOP stances. Even so, in the last election she won almost 40% of the Hispanic vote in New Mexico, according to Politico, due in no small part to the potential of electing the first Hispanic woman as governor in the state.

Meanwhile, her opponent, Gary King, is a white, male Democrat running on platforms such as environmental protection and economic reform of the state economy. While King doesn’t physically resemble the majority of New Mexican voters, he maintains that his political views align with Latino interests.

King has even gone so far as to question Martinez’s “Hispanic cred,” as KRQE reports. In September, he said (in a bit of a gaffe) that Martinez didn’t have a “Latino heart.” He caught a lot of heat for the comment, and deservedly so, but his point was that Martinez refuses to support policies that could benefit Hispanic or Latino voters. Instead, he insinuated, she relies on her last name and ethnicity to carry the Hispanic vote.

The Candidates Face Off

The ongoing tug-of-war over which candidate could best represent the interests of Latino and Hispanic voters came to a bit of a head last week. On October 6, Martinez and King faced off in their second televised debate, as reported by Huffington Post. The debate diverged from the norm in that it was conducted entirely in Spanish. (Incidentally, languages other than English are enjoying increasing popularity amongst linguistic learners–check out our coverage of the phenomenon.)

Lochaven/Flickr--New Mexico has a uniquely gorgeous physical landscape in addition to its political one!

Lochaven/Flickr–New Mexico has a uniquely gorgeous physical landscape in addition to its political one!

On the one hand, debating in Spanish could benefit King in the long run. Although he had to rely on an interpreter to ask and answer each question, King has to make a significant impression on New Mexico’s Latino and Hispanic voters (a large portion of whom speak primarily Spanish) and a televised debate in Spanish allowed him to convey his message to an otherwise unreachable demographic.

On the other hand, Martinez certainly benefitted from the Spanish language debate because she got to play up her identity as a Latina governor. Martinez was able to conduct the entire debate on her own, completely in Spanish, enabling her to instantly relate to her voter base.

Language as Political Tool

Our greatest takeaway from this political development is that language is a key part of the respective identities these candidates have crafted to attract votes. In past political races, candidates have used their gender, race, family, and previous occupations to inform their campaigns and pander to their voter bases. It then only seems natural that language should also come into play as a political means to an end.

Could you handle a spanish political debate? Try our Spanish Level Test to see how good your foreign language skills are. Ready to continue your studies, or want to start learning a new foreign language? Contact Language Trainers to find out more about personalized course options in your neighborhood!