SANTA FE – House Republican floor leader Nate Gentry opted against seeking re-election Tuesday, creating another open seat as Albuquerque emerges as a critical battleground in this year’s race to control the state House.
The political environment is expected to favor Democrats – partly because of President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings – but both sides see plenty of potential pickup opportunities.
Altogether, eight seats are open this year with no incumbent seeking re-election.
And 10 incumbents – eight of them Democrats – will face challengers from within their own parties in the June 5 primary election.
This year’s campaign for the state House – which flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2016 – began to take shape Tuesday with candidate-filing day across New Mexico. Democrats now hold a 38-32 edge in the House, but there are plenty of potential swing districts.
Two years ago, in fact, nine candidates won their campaigns by 6 percentage points or less. Three races were within about 2 points.
Gentry, whose district stretches along Montgomery Boulevard in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, said he had personal reasons to forgo a re-election campaign. His parents are navigating a health problem, he said, and he must focus on the law practice he operates with his mother.
“This is bittersweet,” he said in a letter to constituents, “but I know the right thing to do, given all the sacrifices she has made on my behalf over the last 10 years – and a lifetime.”
Gentry faced a tough re-election fight. He won his 2016 race by just 4 percentage points over Democrat Natalie Figueroa, a high school Spanish teacher who filed to run again this year.
Retired naval officer John L. Jones, a Republican, also filed in Gentry’s district.
As the Republican leader in the House, Gentry has been one of the Legislature’s most influential members. He served as House majority leader for two years when Republicans held a narrow edge in that chamber – a GOP takeover he helped engineer, the first in the House in 60 years.
He sponsored many of the crime and public safety bills backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez when the GOP held a House majority, though those bills often failed in the Senate, where Democrats maintained a healthy majority.
Gentry turned to bipartisan legislation over the past two years when Democrats reclaimed the House. He was part of a push this year, for example, to craft a broad anti-crime package that stiffens penalties for violent felons caught with a firearm while also aiming to improve treatment for inmates struggling with mental illness or addiction.
During this year’s session, Gentry worked closely with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on crime and education-related bills, as political rhetoric in the chamber cooled compared with previous years.
“I’m pleased with how this session went and that we were able to bring more civility and comity,” Gentry said in an interview.
He said he was focused on business and family matters for now, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of running for elected office in the future.
Albuquerque and southern New Mexico are emerging once again as key battlegrounds in the race to control the House, where all 70 members are on the ballot this year.
Among the nine closest races in 2016, Democrats won five and Republicans won four.
But two of those Republicans, Gentry and Sarah Maestas Barnes, both of Albuquerque, have opted against seeking re-election.
And the political environment is expected to favor Democrats this year, as the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats during midterm elections. President Trump’s approval ratings have hit historic lows.
“The data are really clear on this: Presidential approval affects state contests,” even legislative races, said Lonna Atkeson, a professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the UNM Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy.
Democrats who had close races in 2016 may build on their margins this time, she said.
“All indicators suggest there’s a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side that might lead to more turnout than we normally see in a midterm,” Atkeson told the Journal.
Here are some of the key House races:
• District 15, stretching from Albuquerque’s far Northeast Heights to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque and the North Valley. Incumbent Republican Maestas Barnes isn’t seeking re-election.
Campaigning to replace her are Albuquerque City Councilor Brad Winter, a Republican, and attorney Dayan Hochman, a Democrat.
• District 23, based in Corrales. Democratic incumbent Daymon Ely beat an incumbent, Republican Paul Pacheco, two years ago by less than 1 percentage point.
This year, Ely will face a challenge by Republican Brenda Boatman, who served in the Army as an air traffic controller.
• District 29, in far northwest Albuquerque. Republican David Adkins won by just nine votes two years ago.
This time, he faces Democrat Joy Garratt, an instructional coach who ran a strong campaign for state Senate in 2016 but lost to incumbent Republican Sander Rue.
• Eight Democrats will face primary challenges in June: Doreen Johnson of Church Rock, Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, Debbie Sariñana of Albuquerque, Bealquin “Bill” Gomez of La Mesa, Debbie Rodella of Española, Carl Trujillo of Santa Fe, House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos of Las Cruces and Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo.
• Two Republicans face primary challenges: Bill Rehm of Albuquerque and Bob Wooley of Roswell.