SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Legislature is one of the most politically polarized legislatures in the nation – even more polarized than Congress, according to one study.
But at least in part because Democrats have majorities in both the state Senate and House, there hasn’t been the type of gridlock associated with the divided Congress, where Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House.
In the November general election, the GOP has one of its best shots in decades to take control of the New Mexico House. All 70 seats in the House are at stake in the election. Democrats now have a 37-33 edge. (Senate seats aren’t up until 2016.)
Even though many may view a divided Legislature and fewer new laws as good things, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders don’t expect the Washington experience to be replicated here if the GOP were to take control of the House.
The 33 House seats now held by Republicans are the most the GOP has had since the House was expanded to 70 members in 1967. Republicans haven’t controlled the House in more than 60 years.
Nolan McCarty, chairman of the politics department at Princeton University, and Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, have researched polarization in state legislatures and Congress.
Writing for The Washington Post, Shor said polarization was defined as the average ideological distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican.
To assess the ideologies of lawmakers, McCarty and Shor looked at roll call votes across about 20 years in each state, as well as surveys of candidates for state legislatures and Congress.
The researchers came up with a graph showing the average polarization of each state legislature and Congress, which was published online by The Washington Post.
The graph shows that only California, Colorado and Michigan have legislatures more polarized than the New Mexico’s.
Legislatures in Arizona and Wisconsin – states that have been roiled in recent years by partisan fights over legislation – were nearly as polarized.
About half the state legislatures were more polarized than Congress. Rhode Island – which has been described by The New York Times as the most politically elastic state – had the nation’s least polarized legislature.
House Republican Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque – a possible candidate for House speaker should the GOP take control of the chamber – says there are ultraconservatives and ultraliberals in the Legislature.
But, Gentry adds, “I think there is a healthy group of legislators in both parties who are moderate” and willing to compromise on legislation.
House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, says the House reflects the diversity of New Mexico, from liberal to conservative communities, urban to rural.
“That is the beauty of the New Mexico House and New Mexico in general,” Maestas says.
Gentry says a Republican takeover of the House would be short-lived if the GOP used the power to push extreme anti-abortion or other legislation. He says he’s interested in problem-solving in such areas as education and economic development.
“We need to try different things, and both sides need to contribute,” he says. “Let’s focus on the things that are really going to improve the condition of the state.”
Maestas says the House has become more partisan in recent years as Republicans have substantially narrowed the margin of Democratic control. He says both parties have voted more in blocs and been guilty of pushing legislation merely to force the other side to vote “no.”
Maestas doesn’t believe that with a Republican-controlled House, the Legislature would become as seemingly paralyzed as Congress does at times.
“We’re way more mature than in Washington,” he says.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.