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State House Republicans take unfamiliar reins of power

SANTA FE – A day after the GOP won control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in more than half a century, the new reality was beginning to sink in.

“It’s not going to be a simple job – we’ve been the minority for 60 years,” Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said in a Wednesday interview. “We’re going to spend lots of time figuring out how to run the place.”

Top-ranking GOP House members said they were planning to hold a caucus meeting this weekend to elect new floor leaders and possibly nominate a new speaker of the House for the 60-day legislative session that begins in January.

MARTINEZ: Will hand over speaker's gavel in 2015

MARTINEZ: Will hand over speaker’s gavel in 2015

GENTRY: Mentioned as candidate for speaker

GENTRY: Mentioned as candidate for speaker

Other tasks facing House Republicans after the rare shift in power include naming new committee chairs and hiring staff.

After picking up a net gain of four seats in Tuesday’s general election, House Republicans will go into next year with a 37-33 majority over Democrats, who have owned a majority in the 70-member chamber since 1954.

While the official election of a new speaker of the House won’t be held until the opening day of the 2015 legislative session, Republicans could nominate their pick for the powerful position this weekend.

Gentry, who is currently the House GOP whip, and has been mentioned as a candidate for speaker, said Wednesday that he had not yet decided whether to seek the post.

Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, who easily won re-election for his ninth term Tuesday, confirmed he’s interested in the job but said others are as well.

“I think we have about 37 people who are interested,” Tripp said Wednesday.

Current House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said low turnout was largely to blame for Democratic defeats on Election Day. Only about 40 percent of registered state voters – about 512,000 people – cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, based on unofficial results that could grow once provisional ballots are counted.

TRIPP: GOP will learn "how to run the place"

TRIPP: Says many lawmakers are interested in top House job

Despite losing control of the chamber for the first time in 60 years, Martinez said, House Democrats did “everything right” on the campaign trail. A pro-Democratic political committee spent more than $1 million on House races.

“It will be some new territory for the folks on the other side of the aisle to get together and govern,” he told the Journal.

He also said that House Democrats will continue to stand for core party values and that he does not believe the Tuesday election results mean a mandate for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who convincingly won re-election to a second term.

Martinez’s political committee backed several Republican candidates in the run-up to the general election, but a campaign spokesman for the governor said Wednesday that she will work with lawmakers from both political parties.

Campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez also said the governor will not meddle in House GOP leadership decisions.

“Gov. Martinez will not be involved in House GOP leadership discussions and is confident they will choose a strong leadership team that will put the interests of New Mexico first,” Sanchez told the Journal.

In all, Republican candidates won in five districts Tuesday that had been in the Democratic column. Just one Democrat defeated a Republican incumbent, as Matthew McQueen of the Santa Fe area ousted Rep. Vickie Perea, R-Belen, in House District 50. She had been appointed to compete the term of a Democratic legislator who died.

The Republican pickups were in the following races:

  • House District 15 – Republican challenger Sarah Maestas Barnes of Albuquerque ousted Democratic Rep. Emily Kane in a hard-fought race.
  • House District 24 – Republican Conrad James reclaimed his old House seat by defeating Rep. Elizabeth Thomson, D-Albuquerque, in a rematch of a 2012 race.
  • House District 36 – Former Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch, running as a Republican after previously serving in the Legislature as a Democrat and independent, knocked off first-term Rep. Phillip Archuleta, D-Las Cruces.
  • House District 39 – Four-term Democratic Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez of Bayard was upset by Republican John Zimmerman of Las Cruces.
  • House District 53 – Former legislator Ricky Little of Chaparral will head back to Santa Fe after defeating Democrat Mariaelena Johnson. The race was for a seat currently held by Rep. Nate Cote, D-Organ, who was not running for re-election.

Republicans also fended off a couple of strong challenges from Democratic opponents, including Rep. Terry McMillan of Las Cruces rebuffing Joanne Ferrary to win re-election in House District 37.

The Republican takeover of the New Mexico House was part of a national Election Day trend in which legislative chambers around the county go from being Democrat-controlled to Republican-controlled.

Other states home to GOP takeovers of one or more chambers included Colorado, Washington, Nevada, West Virginia, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country, Republicans now appear to have majorities in 67 chambers.

The New Mexico Senate, where Democrats hold a 25-17 advantage over Republicans, was not up for re-election this year.

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