Runoff predicted in CNMI’s three-way race for governor

There are 19,275 registered voters for the CNMI 2022 general elections. This number excludes absentee voters. 

According to the CNMI Constitution, “If no candidates receive more than one-half of the total votes cast and counted for the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor, on the fourteenth day thereafter, a runoff election shall be held between the candidates for governor and the lieutenant governor receiving the highest and second highest number of votes cast and counted for those offices.”

Governor Ralph Torres, who is seeking re-election, is being challenged by Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios and Rep. Tina Sablan.

Political observers raise doubts that any of the three candidates in the crowded three-way race would receive a 50 percent-plus one vote, approximately 9,636 votes. In this case, some speculate that a runoff election is likely to take place to determine who will be the next CNMI governor.

The beleaguered Torres, who is running with Sen. Vinnie Sablan, still hopes to get the upper hand in the race.

Despite allegations of corruption and misconduct in public office, Torres’s core supporters have remained intact.

The 43-year-old governor counts on his charisma, his administration’s public-private partnerships and the public response to his federal government-aided programs.

In 2018, Torres and Palacios won by a landslide, receiving 8,922 votes, or 62 percent, the most number of votes received by a gubernatorial tandem in commonwealth history.

Palacios, 67, decided to run against Torres after what he called the “loss of trust” in the administration following a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid at the governor’s office in November 2019, the subsequent impeachment proceedings, and the criminal charges pertaining to the governor’s premium class travel and failure to appear in compliance with a legislative subpoena. 

Palacios is running with Saipan Mayor David Apatang, under the Independent Party.

Palacios with Apatang vowed to rebuild the CNMI economy, improve the public health system, reduce the cost of utilities, invest in youth and workforce, create opportunities for families by increasing home ownership, and continue to support the retirees and the veterans.

The Palacios-Apatang tandem’s conservative followers and family connections remain steadfast in supporting the team.

Sablan, the Democratic Party’s candidate, is running with Rep. Leila Fleming Staffler.

One of the governor’s most vocal critics, Sablan led the scrutiny into the Torres administration’s expenditures, calling them “lavish and extravagant.” Sablan also initiated impeachment proceedings against the incumbent governor.

During the midterm elections in 2020, Sablan launched a successful grassroots campaign, topping the race for the House of Representatives legislature. 

Whether she would command the same level of following remains to be seen in the general elections. Her campaign is challenged by the strength of the Republican base and loyal supporters in Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

Political observers don’t rule out the possibility of Sablan’s followers switching to Palacios. Gubernatorial teams are anticipated to court the growing Filipino-American voters in the CNMI, who are considered “swing voters” but are known to vote independently rather than as a bloc.

Early voting in Saipan, Tinian and Rota is expected to run Tuesday, November 1, 2022.