SANTA FE, N.M. — Four years ago, progressive Democrats shook up the New Mexico Legislature by unseating three moderate incumbents in primary election races.
An attempt at a repeat performance largely fizzled Tuesday, as centrist Democratic lawmakers fended off challenges from more left-leaning opponents in several legislative districts statewide.
“This is the first time they’ve come after an incumbent and not been able to knock them off,” said Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, a four-term senator who was targeted by progressives in campaign mailers but emerged victorious from a three-way Democratic race in Senate District 39.
Griego attributed his victory over Jack Sullivan and Nicole Castellano to strong voter support in rural areas and vowed to unite Democrats for his general election campaign against Republican Aubrey Dunn of Roswell.
“Whatever was done yesterday and the day before is over,” Griego said.
Political consultant Neri Holguin, who helped engineer the 2008 progressive triumphs, said disillusionment among regular voters in a low-turnout election likely factored into the success of incumbent legislators.
In addition to Griego, Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming; John Sapien, D-Corrales; and George Muñoz, D-Gallup, were among the moderate Democrats who defeated challengers Tuesday.
“Our challenge campaigns are tougher when a more conservative and older base of voters are the ones voting,” Holguin said. “It’s quite an effort and a considerable expense turning out new voters in primaries.”
Only about 30 percent of the roughly 14,000 registered Democratic voters in Senate District 39 – which stretches from southern Santa Fe to Capitan in Lincoln County – cast votes in Griego’s race, a figure that was actually higher than in many other legislative contests around the state.
While they were largely unsuccessful in ousting incumbents, progressive Democrats did post primary election victories in at least two open seats, with 25-year-old Jacob Candelaria defeating Carlos Villanueva in West Side Albuquerque’s Senate District 26. Candelaria, who does not have a GOP opponent for the general election, is poised to become the first openly gay man to serve in the New Mexico Legislature.
In addition, union leader Christine Trujillo triumphed in a three-way race in House District 25 and will face Republican Elisabeth Keen, who won her party’s nomination over Nicholas Riali, in November.
Another factor in this year’s primary election races were independent expenditure committees, which do not have to adhere to state contribution limits and pumped large amounts of money into legislative contests.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s political consultant, Jay McCleskey, confirmed Tuesday he is involved with an independent expenditure group, Reform New Mexico Now, that spent about $100,000 on eight contested Democratic primary races in the final days before the primary election.
The money was spent on two dozen mailers and radio ads that touted some Democratic candidates while criticizing others, he said.
Seven Democrats aided by Reform New Mexico Now PAC, which was largely funded by contributions from two Artesia oil and gas companies, won their races.
“We are encouraged that New Mexicans stood with Democratic candidates who are willing to work across the aisle and rejected efforts by fringe groups to protect the status quo by electing candidates committed to partisan gridlock,” McCleskey said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Eliseo Alcón, D-Milan, a vocal critic of the governor who was attacked by the PAC, won re-election in House District 6.