President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell has lost his Senate seat after 34 years. He was the highest-profile Democratic target of a ferocious campaign by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her political allies.
The other top Senate Democrat with a bull’s-eye on his back, Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, fended off his GOP opponent Tuesday, according to unofficial results.
Jennings lost his District 32 seat to GOP newcomer Cliff Pirtle, according to complete but unofficial election returns giving Pirtle 52 percent of the vote.
Sanchez defeated Rep. David Chavez, a Los Lunas Republican backed by Martinez, in Valencia County’s District 29.
Senate Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, was trailing her Republican challenger, Lee Cotter, in District 36 as she ran for a seventh term. Garcia recently paid a fine to the secretary of state for alleged violations of a law governing campaign funds, after a complaint from Cotter’s campaign treasurer.
The Senate’s top Democratic leaders were among several Legislature incumbents fighting to keep their seats in tough re-election battles.
It appeared Republicans would pick up at least three seats in the Senate, where Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 28-14.
Jennings, a Roswell-area rancher, is the second-longest serving member of the Senate; he’s been there since 1979, and he’s held the Senate’s top post since 2008. He has also been majority leader and majority whip.
“It’s been a hell of a run. … I have absolutely no regrets,” Jennings told the Journal.
Jennings criticized the attack ads against him funded by a group run by Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, and said his heavily Republican district made him vulnerable.
Pirtle, a 27-year-old farmer, ran for Congress two years ago, losing the Republican primary to Steve Pearce for the U.S. House.
“It looks like it’s going to fall in my direction … It’s a great feeling. I’m honored that people have faith in me,” Pirtle told the Journal. He thanked Jennings for “34 years of selfless service.”
Voters in Sanchez’s and Jennings’ districts saw a flood of hard-hitting campaign mailers, many of them sent by independent political groups, or super PACs, that spent an unprecedented amount of money — at least $3 million at last count — on state legislative races.
In an Albuquerque state Senate race, Democratic incumbent Lisa Curtis lost to the GOP’s Mark Moores, returning the District 21 seat to the Republican column. Curtis was appointed to the seat late last year after then-Sen. Kent Cravens, a Republican, resigned.
Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch, the lone independent in the Legislature, was trailing both a Democratic and a Republican opponent in House District 36.
Nuñez sponsored the legislation sought by Martinez to repeal the law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, but the governor’s camp backed the Republican candidate in the race.
Seven-term incumbent Rep. Ray Begaye, D-Shiprock, was lagging behind GOP candidate Sharon Clahchischilliage in returns in House District 4. Begaye has been under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office after it was disclosed he was reimbursed twice for a legislative conference in Phoenix.
And it was recently reported that he used legislative stationery to write letters to San Juan County magistrates on behalf of his daughter, who faced drunken driving charges.
In the Doña Ana County state House District 37 race, first-term Republican Rep. Terry McMillan and Democratic challenger Joanne Ferrary were in a seesawing contest.
Also in tight races were GOP incumbents Conrad James in Albuquerque’s House District 24 and Dianne Hamilton of Silver City in House District 38.
There was another squeaker in House District 43, where Rep. Jim Hall of Los Alamos narrowly led Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard.
Martinez and fellow Republicans had hoped to win control of the state House for the first time since 1954.
Going into the election, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 36-33 in the House, with independent Nuñez the 70th member.
Key parts of Martinez’s legislative agenda were at stake with the outcome of legislative races, including a measure that would require third-graders who are not proficient in reading to repeat the grade level and a proposed repeal of the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
Both of those proposals from the Republican governor have stalled during the last two years in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Martinez has targeted Sanchez, in particular, as a “roadblock” to her agenda.
Reform New Mexico Now, run by McCleskey, spent at least $1.8 million during the general election to advance Martinez’s agenda.
The group sent out mailers in roughly two dozen legislative districts and paid for television ads that specifically criticized Sanchez and Jennings for past votes.
The biggest spender of several Democratic-leaning groups, Patriot Majority New Mexico, spent more than $1.3 million on state races during a recent monthlong period. It received most of its money from national labor unions.
A total of 38 incumbent lawmakers — 20 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent — faced re-election challenges.
All 112 legislative seats were up for grabs Tuesday. Not all were contested, but it was clear there would be new faces in Santa Fe starting in January 2013, when a 60-day regular session begins.
Five legislators were defeated in primary election contests in June, and a number of others either decided not to seek re-election or opted to run for a different office.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal