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With session over, election comes into focus

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The session is over, but the political and policy debates aren’t.

All 112 seats in the state Legislature are on the ballot this year – with a number of swing districts in Albuquerque and southern New Mexico likely to be targeted.

Republicans, heavily outnumbered, are eager to press their case that Democrats overspent, infringed on gun owners’ constitutional rights and did too little to address crime over the last two years.

“We’re declaring war,” Republican Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert of Corrales said just hours after the end of the 2020 legislative session.

Democrats, who will be defending the eight House seats they picked up in the blue wave of 2018, in turn say they are ready to highlight accomplishments on health care, education, crime and the economy.

“Those are the things people care about,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said. “Unemployment is finally going down in New Mexico, and people are finally moving here.”

Two election cycles will play out this year for the Legislature.

The June 2 primary election will feature left-leaning challengers taking on moderate or conservative Democratic senators. About a half dozen veteran Democrats in the Senate are expected to be targeted for opposing an abortion-rights measure, the legalization of marijuana and/or attempts to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood spending.

And in November, Republicans will try to erode Democrats’ edge in each chamber. Both parties typically view parts of Albuquerque – especially the North Valley, Northeast Heights and northern West Side – and chunks of southern New Mexico as swing districts.

Brian Sanderoff, a pollster and political analyst, said New Mexico is becoming more polarized along urban and rural lines. Cities are turning increasingly progressive, he said, while rural areas remain more conservative.

The changes come as Democrats hold a sizeable majority in each legislative chamber, in addition to every statewide office.

“The Democrats are definitely playing defense due to their unprecedented electoral success in 2018,” said Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc.

Republicans held a 37-33 edge in the House from 2015 to 2016. Since then, Democrats have picked up 13 seats, pushing their advantage to 46-24, the biggest majority for Democrats in 24 years. The Senate is now split 26-16, with Democrats having picked up two seats in 2016.

Senators are on the ballot every four years, House members every two.

National politics likely to dominate

National politics will help shape the election landscape.

President Donald Trump’s attempt to win New Mexico is expected to trigger increased turnout and dominate television advertising.

It will be up to legislative candidates, Sanderoff said, to reach the swing voters who participate in the Nov. 3 general election.

Arguments over firearms restrictions and marijuana legalization, he said, have a chance to break through the national debate and catch local voters’ attention.

Over the last two sessions, the Legislature has passed three significant gun-control measures – expanding background checks, prohibiting domestic abusers from having guns and allowing for the court-ordered seizure of firearms from individuals deemed a threat.

Repeated attempts to legalize recreational marijuana – either through state-run stores or local producers – have failed.

“In a presidential year, national politics tends to dominate the airwaves and the political discourse, and it will here,” Sanderoff said. “However, I think this session was particularly contentious on hot-button issues like guns.”

Legislative races

Lawmakers certainly know an election is coming. In even-numbered years, the Legislature meets for just 30 days, and legislators are eager to avoid a special session that would interfere with their campaigning or fundraising.

In a few cases, former Sen. Dede Feldman said, the knowledge of a competitive race on the horizon may influence a senator’s vote or their legislative proposals. Other legislators – particularly the leaders of influential committees – may try to help or hurt another member’s legislation, with the election in mind.

Dede Feldman

But Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat who has written a book on the New Mexico Senate, said legislators are less influenced by the race to come than people suppose.

“In general, people vote based on a panoply of influences they have,” Feldman said. “Their constituents are one, their conscience, their governor, their party, their leadership in the chamber, their wife, their husband, their church.”

Among the powerful Senate Democrats facing primary challenges this year are Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming, and Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee Chairman Clemente Sanchez of Grants.

But most lawmakers, Feldman said, are in safe districts and see few serious challengers. New Mexico is among the least-competitive states for legislative races, Feldman said.

“The backdrop,” she said, “is that most legislators don’t have too much to worry about because they’re not going to get a challenge.”

On that front, this year’s election will be more consequential than most. Those elected will be in office during the next round of redistricting – when boundaries for congressional and legislative seats will be drawn for the next 10 years.

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