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How this GOP Latina pol is playing her Trump card

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez
Russell Contreras | AP
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez

In this tumultuous election season, political opportunity sometimes knocks with a plume of orange-colored smoke.

And so the Trump Train rolled into New Mexico this week, with its wild-eyed conductor opening his arms to the next load of enthusiastic passengers — except someone refused to get aboard.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican primary and has criticized Donald Trump for his immigration rhetoric, was a conspicuous no-show at Trump's Albuquerque rally. Martinez had previously said she was holding out on endorsing the presumptive GOP nominee, insisting she had yet to be sufficiently impressed.

Even amidst all the evening's pandemonium, Trump took note of the slight, dedicating some of his speech to chiding Martinez for the state's performance under her reign.

"She's got to do a better job, OK?" Trump told the crowd. "Your governor has got to do a better job." He went on to joke that he just might have to run for governor of New Mexico to clean up her mess.

In response, Martinez's spokesman vowed that she would "not be bullied into supporting a candidate," while her acolytes took to Twitter to tsk-tsk the New York tycoon.


Now that the line has been drawn, will Martinez hold it, straddle it, or fall in behind it? Precisely how she answers that question will make for one of the more intriguing subplots to the narrative of Republican unification, especially as the rest of the GOP quickly comes to heel.

With several news reports Wednesday predicting a nearing Trump endorsement from House Speaker Paul Ryan (which Ryan later denied), Martinez is swiftly finding herself on a depopulating island of elected Republican holdouts. Seven of the 10 governors who form the Republican Governor's Association's executive committee, which Martinez chairs, have now said they will support Trump. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a prominent Latino GOP officeholder who had been highly critical of Trump, came around earlier this month. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been one of Martinez's key allies, immediately endorsed Trump after dropping out of the presidential race in February.

It's an interesting and important time for Martinez, who has, until now, been able to climb the national ladder without getting into the national muck. Her state, New Mexico, has largely avoided the tea party-versus-establishment sectarianism that has seized other states, like neighboring Arizona and Texas, and the governor has shown a strong preference for any local photo op over a cable news joust.

This is not the first time Martinez has gotten crosswise with a member of her own party: Much of her tenure as governor has been marked by turf battles with follow Republicans. (Martinez and her spokesman did not respond to email requests for comment from CNBC.com.)

As this reporter wrote in 2013 for National Journal, Martinez has won a long list of party detractors, including a number of people who once held great promise for her. Harvey Yates, one of the major donors to Martinez's first gubernatorial campaign; Andrea Goff, one of her former fundraisers; and Anissa Ford, a former close aide, have all since turned against her. Jamie Estrada, the governor's former campaign manager, went to prison for stealing and leaking her emails to the Democratic opposition.

Among the criticisms was that Martinez maintained a tight team of power-hungry loyalists, led by advisor Jay McCleskey, who let no sunlight come between them and the governor. Sound familiar?

It has made for some ugliness in Santa Fe, and the once-glowing national stories about the GOP's Latina savior have turned decidedly more circumspect, as the Martinez administration has faced repeated allegations of corruption, cronyism, high-handedness and incompetence. McCleskey was subject to a federal criminal investigation for several years but was never charged. And Martinez all but melted her halo earlier this year when she was caught in a drunken tape-recorded phone call, trying to intercede with police officers who had been called to her hotel room in Santa Fe. With the state's economy sputtering along, Martinez's poll numbers, which luxuriated in the 60s during much of her first term, have now dipped below 50 percent.

Maybe it's the right time for a fight, even with a slugger like Trump.

The key difference between Martinez's current donnybrook with The Donald and her squabbles with state Republicans, is that this one offers a whiff of the moral high ground: In the face of the brash Manhattanite, Martinez is positioned to assert herself as the indefatigable defender of compassionate conservatism. Moreover, she can demonstrate that she is, in fact, her own politician, after years in which critics have questioned whether she is being puppet-mastered by an overzealous political advisor.

And sure enough, the praise rained down on her Wednesday.

Ryan and Rubio publicly came to Martinez's defense, with the House speaker calling her a "great governor" and a "friend of mine." Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all followed suit. Even Ed Rollins, an advisor of the pro-Trump super PAC, said he wished Trump would have handled things differently, while Trump advisor Barry Bennett exasperatedly told CNN that the campaign had sought a sitdown with Martinez, but it had been rebuffed.

"I don't know who's giving her political advice, but I don't think she's getting good advice," Bennett said, joining a long list of Republicans who have thought the same thing.

For now, some key Martinez watchers, both friend and foe, believe she will eventually take her seat on the Trump Train, despite the momentary resistance. At the very least, they see her playing it safe with a hedge.

"I don't think there is any downside to being a prominent surrogate advocating for the defeat of Hillary Clinton — for [Martinez's] own future," said Scott Jennings, political director for Jeb Bush's campaign who maintains close ties to the Martinez camp. "Does that mean she has to repudiate things she has said in the past? No. And I wouldn't advise any candidate to disavow statements they made weeks ago."


Don Tripp, the Republican speaker of the New Mexico House, said he fully expects Martinez to be a Trump surrogate by the time of the Republican National Convention rolls around in July.

"She is the leader of our delegation going to the convention, and you will find that our entire delegation will support our nominee," Tripp said. "As head of the RGA, [Martinez] does have a pulpit where she can really help the nominee. She has always been willing to do whatever she could do to support any Republican candidate."

Yates, who was recently elected the state's RNC committeeman, makes a similar prediction.

"Trump has a problem of lacking civility, and that is unfortunate because we need civility," Yates told CNBC.com. "[Martinez], in a sense, is feeling the effect of that and maybe she will begin to understand what others have felt when her team lacks civility. But in the final analysis I don't think anything is cemented. I think if she sees a strong majority of Republicans in this state support Trump through the primary process, she has to respect that."

Or does she?