Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The partisan fight for control of the state House is set to ripple through the neighborhoods of Paradise Hills and Ventana Ranch in northwest Albuquerque.
Under a newly redrawn House map, the suburban, family-friendly area is home to the most closely divided legislative district on the Nov. 8 ballot, according to an analysis of voting trends over the past 10 years by Research & Polling Inc., the state’s redistricting contractor.
Albuquerque is, in fact, set to play a crucial role in whether Democrats hang on to their substantial edge in the 70-member House.
Five of the seven most competitive legislative races in New Mexico this year are rooted in the state’s largest city, where Democrats are defending seats covering parts of the West Side, Northeast Heights and foothills.
And the other two most closely divided districts are nearby: A Republican-held seat that stretches through parts of Rio Rancho, Corrales and Albuquerque, and another GOP seat in Belen.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said Republicans are well positioned to flip a few seats in the Albuquerque area, and make gains in southern and southwestern New Mexico.
Albuquerque is, of course, critical to either party’s majority. In addition to an open seat covering Paradise Hills on the West Side, Republicans are eyeing a handful of seats in the Northeast Heights and the Four Hills area that were held by Republicans until the Democratic wave of 2018 – at the midterm of President Donald Trump’s tenure.
“There were many people, I think, that were very troubled with the politics of President Trump, the tweets and those kind of things, but what they had missed was the standard of living they had enjoyed,” Townsend said.
Now, with Democrats in control of the White House and the Roundhouse, he said, New Mexicans are reeling from high inflation and the nation’s second-highest rate of violent crime.
“People are hurting,” Townsend said, and they’re ready for a change.
Democrats, in turn, have their own reasons for optimism. They already have a commanding majority in the House – 45-24, plus one conservative-leaning independent who is not running for reelection.
And they say they have put their edge to good use, boosting spending on education and other priorities, repealing an anti-abortion law and enacting tax cuts for working families.
“We have delivered on the promises we made,” House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said.
The party has made so many gains in Albuquerque since 2018 that it’s difficult to see Democrats boosting their numbers there. Only one Republican, Bill Rehm, is left in Albuquerque’s delegation to the House, and his Northeast Heights seat leans heavily Republican.
But Martínez said he sees pickup opportunities in districts that touch Rio Rancho, Socorro and Silver City.
“We feel very confident that we’ll be able to compete in seats where we haven’t been able to in the past,” he said.
The composition of the House has changed dramatically over the past eight years.
Republicans claimed a 37-33 edge in the 2014 election, then Democrats won back a narrow majority two years later.
But Democrats have expanded their majority to 45 or 46 seats since the blue wave of 2018.
This year’s races will, however, play out in newly redrawn districts based on 2020 census data.
Broadly speaking, Democrats have a clear edge in 34 seats, with another 11 seats that lean Democratic, according to voting trends over the past 10 years, analyzed by Research & Polling Inc. and shared with legislators.
The analysis examined the performance of Democratic and Republican candidates in competitive statewide races from 2012 to 2020. The figures aren’t necessarily a prediction of how the districts might behave in the future.
Winning every one of the Democratic-leaning seats would give Democrats a big majority consistent with the past four years.
But the margin is pretty narrow in some races. Seven of the 70 districts are within roughly 2 percentage points. At least two others are within 3 points.
The redrawn districts also make it more likely that each party will flip at least a few seats, even if they end up offsetting each other and leave the composition roughly intact.
Republicans, of course, are eager to make gains.
“I think we have a very, very good chance of making significant changes to the makeup of the House of Representatives,” Townsend said.
Two Albuquerque Democrats – Marian Matthews and Pamelya Herndon – are in Northeast Heights-based districts that have leaned slightly toward Republicans in the 10-year voting analysis.
A third Albuquerque Democrat, Meredith Dixon, whose district covers the Four Hills neighborhood and part of the Sandia foothills, is in a district with a slight Democratic lean.
Two open seats on the West Side might also be competitive. Both have been held by Democrats, but neither has an incumbent, either because the district was moved from elsewhere in the city or the incumbent is stepping down, or both.
That gives Albuquerque five House seats – all now held by Democrats – where the 10-year voting trends are within 2 percentage points of each other.
Just two other seats are that closely divided: a Rio Rancho, Corrales and Albuquerque district represented by Republican Jane Powdrell-Culbert and an open seat that includes Belen, where Republican Kelly Fajardo is not seeking reelection.
However it turns out, Albuquerque is set to play a critical role in the makeup of the House.
Martínez, whose own district covers Downtown Albuquerque and part of the North Valley, said Democrats have a strong record to run on. They have worked to expand access to health care and services amid the pandemic, he said, and taken meaningful steps to improve public safety, including extra funding to recruit and retain officers.
Democrats also passed legislation repealing New Mexico’s criminal abortion statute, he said, all the more critical now that the U.S. Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion and empowered states to decide the issue.
“New Mexico will be a leader and beacon of hope for people across this country,” Martínez said.
But Townsend, the Republican leader, said his enthusiasm grows by the day when he sees the reception Republican candidates get “up and down the Rio Grande corridor.”
Families, he said, are feeling the impact of high gas prices and inflation, violent crime that’s attracting national attention and dismal academic outcomes in public schools.
“People are ready for a change,” Townsend said. ” I hear this all the time.”
West Side battleground
No district has been more closely divided over the past 10 years than a chunk of the northern West Side in Albuquerque, according to the Research & Polling data.
Democrats have had a 0.2 percentage point edge over Republicans in the precincts that make up District 68, now held by Democrat Karen Bash, who is not seeking reelection. Republican Monica Youngblood had the seat before Bash.
It’s an area that includes the northern end of the Petroglyph National Monument, subdivisions in Paradise Hills and Ventana Ranch, and striking views of the volcanoes and Sandia Mountains.
Competing for the seat are Democrat Charlotte Little and Republican Robert Moss, each of whom has launched a door-knocking campaign.
It’s been one of the city’s fastest growing areas over the past 20 years, making infrastructure improvements a key issue in the district, alongside more universal concerns, such as crime and education.
Moss, a lawyer and businessman with interests in health care and real estate, said he likes running in a competitive district where candidates encounter a range of political views.
He describes himself as a centrist who’s targeting moderates of both parties.
“I think everyone’s voice in our community needs to be heard,” Moss, 35, said.
Little, who’s 61 and deputy director of Naeva, a nonprofit group that advocates for Native American voters, said she gets a cordial reception at the door regardless of the person’s political affiliation.
Voters in the district, she said, care about a lot of the same things – health care, education, crime.
“For all we hear around us,” Little said, “the issues at the door are very similar. They’re not that far apart.”