The GOP's New Mexico Switcheroo

Analysis of breaking news events.
Nov. 30 2000 3:11 AM

The GOP's New Mexico Switcheroo

Picking over presidential "undervotes" and trying to divine voters' intentions just ain't right! Or at least that's the argument Republicans and Bush family surrogates have been making for the last several weeks in Florida. Doing so can lead to endless recounts, changing the rules after the votes are cast, "mischief," and a number of other bad things.

But apparently this is a rule that only applies east of the Mississippi.

In New Mexico on Tuesday, Republican Party officials prevailed upon the state canvassing board to have a judge, of all people (state District Judge David W. Bonem), consider whether undervotes in Roosevelt County should be re-examined and possibly included in the county's tally. Gore currently leads Bush by 483 votes in New Mexico, and there are 570 undervotes in Roosevelt County, which voted for Bush 2-1. Mickey Barnett, a Republican national committeeman for New Mexico, said he found it "highly unusual" that 10 percent of the voters in the southeastern New Mexico county chose not to vote for president. That's of course the same argument Republicans ridicule when it's made in Florida by the Gore forces.

Was the Bush campaign itself behind this seemingly self-contradictory behavior? Officials in Austin, as well as New Mexico state Party Chairman John Dendahl, deny that Bush's organization told the state GOP to get a judge to peek at the undervotes. But the Bush camp did arrange to have Mark Braden, a high-profile Republican election lawyer and former RNC general counsel, on hand in the state to advise Dendahl on how to plot legal strategy on post-election questions, including the Roosevelt County situation. So the state GOP isn't exactly flying solo in its quest to hunt up undervotes for George W. Bush. It is hard to believe the Bushies, if they wanted to, couldn't get the New Mexican Republicans to drop the undervote claim.

But hypocrisy is not the only issue raised by Republicans' undervote gambit, or even the most important. A bigger question is whether any party that cooked up a strategy as unstrategic as this one should be allowed to take over the nation's foreign policy. After all, there is no scenario in which New Mexico's five electoral votes will be necessary to get Bush over the magic 271-vote threshold. Even if Gore were to lose both New Mexico and Oregon (theoretically possible, but highly unlikely), the outcome of the race would still depend on Florida. There's been some speculation that Bush may want New Mexico's votes as insurance in case an elector or two decides to flip. But that seems a highly hypothetical benefit. The one clear, certain consequence of playing the undervote card in New Mexico (aside from making the GOP appear brazenly hypocritical) is to lend credence to the Democratic argument that Republican lawyers and spin persons in Florida are doing everything they can to stamp out.

Maybe the Democratic mole who sent the debate tape to Tom Downey is at it again. Only this time he's running George W.'s recount war room.

Or maybe the mole's Mark Braden?

Joshua Micah Marshall is the Washington editor of The American Prospect.

Joshua Micah Marshall writes the Talking Points Memo.