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Divisive special session was a warm-up for elections

Former Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, converse during the special session in Santa Fe on Sept. 30. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Outgoing Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, converse during the special session in Santa Fe on Sept. 30. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – The tug of war over control of the Legislature is playing out against the backdrop of a bizarre presidential year and with a fractious special legislative session still echoing.

For nearly two years – and for the first time in six decades – Republicans have controlled the state House of Representatives. Now they’re scrambling to hang on to their 37-33 edge, while Democrats try to claw their way back to a majority.

In the Senate, Democrats are in the majority by 24-18, and it’s considered unlikely that would be upended.

But Republican Gov. Susana Martinez badly wants to get rid of her nemesis, powerful Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, and GOP-allied political committees are expected to spend big in an effort to defeat him.

Those themes were hanging over the special session that ended last week.

Temporary fixes for the state’s budget crisis were the reason for the session, but Martinez also put reinstatement of the death penalty and other crime bills on the agenda, which Democrats said reeked of election-year politicking.

At least a couple of Republican candidates have already sent out mailers attacking their Democratic opponents for their anti-death penalty positions.

And crime bill votes taken during the just-ended session are bound to be fodder for more ads.

While all 112 legislative seats are on the ballot, there are contested races in only 44 of them. More than half of current House members and more than 60 percent of senators are assured of re-election, because no one is running against them.

It was just six years ago that Republicans in the 70-member House were outnumbered by Democrats 45-25. That followed the 2008 surge that put President Barack Obama into office.

But the GOP made big gains in the subsequent midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, ultimately snatching 12 seats away from Democrats to take the majority.

“We have a situation now where the Republicans have to defend the dozen seats they picked up. … So the Republicans are playing defense resulting from their tremendous success,” said Albuquerque pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff.

A lot of that defense is being played in so-called swing districts, where voters have gone back and forth between the two parties over the years.

That can make for close elections. In a southern New Mexico House race four years ago, a freshman GOP incumbent kept his seat when he defeated his Democratic challenger by just eight votes.

“I suspect the Republicans would be extremely happy if they simply held their own,” Sanderoff said.

The dynamic is complicated this year by the presidential contest. Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are in a close race in New Mexico, according to a recent Journal Poll. And they’re unpopular with some members of their own parties.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, describes it as a “pretty significant enthusiasm gap on both sides.”

The recent poll showed nearly a quarter of voters supporting Libertarian Gary Johnson, who was the Republican governor of New Mexico for two terms beginning in 1995.

He is attracting Republicans, Democrats and voters who are unaffiliated – “drawing from all three political troughs,” Sanderoff said.

How all of that could affect voter turnout, and how top-of-the-ticket choices could affect the so-called down-ballot races such as the Legislature, remains to be seen.

“I think the big unknown is, who’s going to show up in this unprecedented election year. … We don’t know what game-time conditions are going to be like,” said Republican Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque, who is helping coordinate the GOP’s election effort in the Senate.

Key House races

In the House, Democrats would have to add two seats to their roster to tie it up and three to regain the majority.

The key races include three swing districts Republicans won by a total of just over 1,100 votes two years ago. Two are in Albuquerque: District 15, where GOP freshman Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes is challenged by Democratic newcomer Ane Romero, and District 24, where Republican Rep. Conrad James isn’t running for re-election. Democratic former Rep. Elizabeth Thomson – who took the seat away from James in 2012 only to have him take it back in 2014 – is trying a comeback, this time facing Republican newcomer Christina Hall.

The third is District 37 in Doña Ana County, where Republican Rep. Terry McMillan is once again facing Democrat Joanne Ferrary, who lost to him in 2012 – by eight votes – and in 2014.

“If those three races had gone the other way, Democrats would still be in the majority,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

Democrats are also rooting for a return by former Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez of Silver City, who is trying to unseat GOP Rep. John Zimmerman in District 39. Zimmerman ousted Martinez two years ago.

Republicans are trying to hang on to the District 36 seat held by Rep. Andy Nuñez, the Hatch mayor who was previously an independent – and before that a Democrat – and now faces former Las Cruces City Councilor Nathan Small, a Democrat.

Other hot spots include District 23 in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, where second-term Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco – a high-profile promoter of the governor’s agenda – is being challenged by Democrat Daymon Ely, a former Sandoval County commissioner; District 43, where Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard faces Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover, a Republican; and San Juan County’s District 4, where GOP Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage is challenged by former San Juan County Commissioner GloJean Todacheene.

And each party is trying to keep southwestern seats where their incumbents are retiring: District 32, held by Democrat Dona Irwin of Deming, and District 38, held by Republican Dianne Hamilton of Silver City.

House Minority Leader Egolf said he is optimistic Democrats can win back the majority.

“Right now, I’d much rather be Democrats than Republicans when it comes to the state House,” he said. “We’ve got lots of paths to a majority; they’ve got to be almost perfect just to keep it.”

Battle for Senate

The state Senate has been the stumbling block for Gov. Martinez’s agenda, and she has focused her wrath on Majority Leader Sanchez of Belen, a lawyer and a 24-year veteran of the Legislature.

Despite being targeted by Martinez in 2012 – senators run every four years – Sanchez comfortably defeated a Republican House member who ran against him in District 29. This year, he has a new opponent, Belen lawyer Greg Baca.

“We certainly want to keep our incumbents, and we’d like to pick up a couple. … It would be great to get up to 26 or 27 seats,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Democrats are intent on getting back sprawling District 39 – stretching from just outside Santa Fe to Ruidoso – which they held before Sen. Phil Griego resigned last year and the governor appointed Republican Ted Barela to replace him. The Democratic nominee is Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, a former state senator.

Democrats are also out to regain the Las Cruces-area District 36 seat they lost four years ago when Republican Lee Cotter defeated Democratic Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia. Rep. Jeff Steinborn is the Democratic candidate.

Republicans, meanwhile, are targeting Democratic freshman Sen. Bill Soules in Las Cruces-area District 37, a longtime GOP seat until 2009. Their candidate is Las Cruces City Councilor Cecelia Levatino.

And the GOP is hungry for a couple of Albuquerque-area swing district seats held by Democrats.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, is in his second term in District 9, but his two wins over Republicans were close. The GOP is running Diego Espinoza against him. Freshman Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, whose District 15 seat has flipped between Republicans and Democrats, faces a challenge from Eric Burton.

Both parties are trying to snag a Republican-held seat that is opening up in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties with the planned departure of three-term Sen. John Ryan in District 10. There Republican Candace Gould and Democrat Dave Simon are facing off.