RIO RANCHO, N.M. — President Donald Trump sought to bolster his re-election chances Monday with a political rally in the border state of New Mexico, appealing directly to Hispanic voters with a message of economic prosperity, while doubling down on his hard-line border enforcement stance.
Trump supporters lined the highway to wave on the president as he arrived at a packed arena in conservative-leaning Rio Rancho, in a state where nearly half of the 2.1 million residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino — the highest ratio in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Elected Democrats led a counter-rally in adjacent Albuquerque amid a gaping ideological divide over immigration policy, gun control, abortion, and other issues.
Vowing to win the New Mexico vote next year, Trump heralded surging oil production in New Mexico, increased local wages and decreasing unemployment nationwide among Hispanics.
New Mexico still has the third-highest unemployment rate among states and the highest rates of poverty in the American West.
"You all look much better than you did three years ago. ... You're doing better than any other state," Trump said. "How do I lose New Mexico?"
Many Hispanic Americans, Trump insisted, support his plans for a border wall.
"They don't want criminals coming across the border, they don't want people taking their jobs. ... They want the wall."
New Mexico is among the states that Trump lost in 2016 and wants to win in 2020. It provides a test of his appeal among Hispanics and residents near the border who have a stake in his immigration policies.
At a Democrat-led rally near downtown Albuquerque, a four-hour drive from the Mexico border, U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland described Trump as misogynistic and ego-driven.
"We have to fight like hell to make sure he loses New Mexico," she said. "We can roll back Trump and we can roll back his policies and we can win New Mexico in 2020."
Awaiting Trump's arrival outside the Rio Rancho arena, 55-year-old Skeeter Trent said she believed the president could flip the state where Republicans haven't won a presidential vote since George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.
“I think that it’s great that Trump is coming out to New Mexico, in small-town America,” Trent said.
With the arena full, thousands of people were still outside as the president arrived.
She expects his visit to spark excitement in New Mexico and help other GOP candidates seeking to succeed Democratic Sen. Tom Udall as he retires and to fill an open House seat as U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján seeks the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Dianna Arvizu — an El Paso, Texas-native who now lives in Albuquerque — said she came to the rally to take a stand against socialism and abortion.
“This is big. He’s coming for us in New Mexico because he cares,” she said. “The old Democrats. they are not going to go for socialism. He’s going to win New Mexico.”
New Mexico has an unenforced criminal statute against most abortion procedures that could go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
A few dozen protesters gathered near the Rio Rancho arena — relegated to a small area across the street.
It was a smaller number of demonstrators than turned out during Trump’s two previous visits to the Albuquerque area in 2016 when street violence flared outside his rally at a convention center.
Trump went on to lose the state by 8 percentage points to Hillary Clinton. Libertarian candidate and former Gov. Gary Johnson took 9% of ballots — votes that may be up for grabs in 2020.
Two years later, Democrats flipped a New Mexico congressional seat and the governor's office while consolidating near-complete control of state government.
Hours before Trump's visit Monday, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham accused the president of demeaning and demonizing Hispanics and immigrants.
“He didn’t raise the minimum wage,” she said, referring to state law she signed to gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour. “He’s not working to invest in renewable energy jobs.”
Trump also repeatedly signaled his support for 2nd Amendment rights. New Mexico this year enacted several new gun control measures that include expanding background checks to most private gun sales.