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Bill seeks to move up NM primary

SANTA FE – A long-standing complaint that New Mexico’s late primary diminishes the state’s influence in presidential elections is fueling another proposal to move it up.

Legislation backed by Republicans is pending in the House to shift the date of the primary from the beginning of June to the third Tuesday in March.

It would affect all even-numbered election years, but it’s aimed at putting the state out front in 2016 and in presidential cycles after that.

“If New Mexico maintains a June primary, we’re going to be completely irrelevant,” contends Republican National Committeeman Pat Rogers.

“We not only won’t receive any visits; we may never hear the words ‘New Mexico’ during the campaign season,” he said.

Although some primary dates for 2016 aren’t firm, New Mexico’s scheduled June 7 date puts it among the few states that are the last to vote. California, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota are currently scheduled to hold primaries the same day; Utah’s could be June 28 if a potential February primary date isn’t funded.

The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said the stream of candidates, campaign workers, national media and others attracted by an early primary would help New Mexico’s economy.

“They’d be staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants … so it would really be a boost to the tourism industry,” Gentry said.

Former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who was in office from 2003 to 2010, pushed for an earlier primary in New Mexico and – through the Western Governors Association he chaired – for a regional Western presidential primary and caucuses.

With his prodding, legislation was passed in 2003 allowing Democrats and Republicans to hold presidential nominating caucuses – which they would pay for – rather than wait for the June primary.

Democrats did that in early February 2004; turnout was twice what was predicted, and presidential candidates made dozens of visits.

Four years later, however, the Democrats’ Super Tuesday presidential caucus was rife with problems, including long waits at polling places, a shortage of ballots, and vote counting that took more than a week.

The Democrats didn’t hold a presidential caucus in 2012.

When Richardson – who later ran for president – was promoting the early primary idea, he denied it was about his own political ambitions.

Asked Thursday whether the GOP’s push this year has to do with fostering the high profile nationally of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, Rogers said, “No.” He said he hoped there would be bipartisan support for boosting the state’s profile.

State Democratic Chairman Sam Bregman said Tuesday that he hadn’t had an opportunity to review the proposal for a March primary and assess its impact on races up and down the ballot, including for the Legislature.

“Obviously, our biggest concern is making sure we have the ability to ensure fair and good elections,” he said.