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Democratic Senate majority leader ousted by newcomer

Candidates for Senate District 29 candidate Michael Sanchez and Gregory A. Baca

Candidates for Senate District 29 candidate Michael Sanchez and Gregory A. Baca

Longtime New Mexico Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen was ousted Tuesday by political newcomer Greg Baca, in a big-spending and hard-hitting re-election race that ended Sanchez’s 24-year run in the state Senate.

But Democrats took back control of the state House — just two years after Republicans seized control for the first time in six decades — by picking up at least five and possibly as many as six Republican-controlled seats.

The defeat of Sanchez, who had been in the Senate since 1993, created the night’s biggest shock waves in the state. Sanchez had been targeted by a pro-Republican super PAC run by Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads featuring relatives of crime victims in an effort to portray Sanchez as out of touch and soft on crime.

Baca made a brief acceptance speech at a GOP election night party in Albuquerque, along with his wife and two kids.

“We just want to work for a better state here — safer streets, better jobs, more opportunities,” Baca said. “I look forward to working hard for all of you.”

Sanchez, who has frequently butted heads with Martinez in recent years, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. He had tried to fight back against the outside attacks with TV ads of his own and also enlisted the help of other prominent Democrats in his bid to keep the Senate District 29 seat.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, lamented Sanchez’s defeat and accused Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, of being behind his ouster and using out-of-state campaign contributions to fund the effort.

“He was a really great majority leader,” Stewart said. “So it’s unfortunate the governor will not be held responsible for the lies she perpetrated about Michael Sanchez.”

As Senate majority leader, Sanchez has had the authority to decide which bills get voted on by the full Senate and in what order.

In a statement to the Journal, the governor said Sanchez’s defeat reflected a desire among New Mexicans to have a safer state.

“This historic victory is an example of courageous moms and widows standing up to a politician who abused his power and ignored his constituents for 24 years,” Martinez said.

Despite losing a prominent member, Democrats had a big night in other legislative races.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Democrats were more in touch than their GOP foes on economic-related issues.

“For the last two years, Republican leaders in the House have ignored kitchen table issues New Mexicans care about,” Egolf said, citing job creation and wage levels as specific examples.

Egolf also confirmed he planned to run for House speaker in January, after newly elected lawmakers take office, and said he planned to reach out today to the governor to discuss issues surrounding the Democratic takeover.

Based on unofficial and incomplete results, four incumbent House Republicans were defeated, and former Rep. Liz Thomson, a Democrat, was victorious in House District 24, an open Albuqueruqe swing seat.

The GOP incumbents losing were Reps. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque, Andy Nunez of Hatch, John Zimmerman of Las Cruces and Terry McMillan of Las Cruces. And another House Republican — David Adkins of Albuquerque — was ahead by a narrow margin that could trigger an automatic vote recount.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who fended off a challenge from Democratic opponent Natalie Figueroa in House District 30, said Republicans weren’t able to overcome a big Democratic advantage in early voting.

“We had real turnout problems,” Gentry told the Journal. “It was just a bad cycle.”

Three incumbent GOP senators were also on the verge of losing — Lisa Torraco of Albuquerque, Ted Barela of Estancia and Lee Cotter of Las Cruces — as Democrats looked poised to build upon their 24-18 advantage in the chamber, even with Sanchez’s defeat.

New Mexico entered this year’s general election cycle as one of only seven states with divided legislatures — Colorado and Washington are among the others — after Republicans here won a majority in the 70-member House in 2014.

But Democrats will enter next year’s 60-day legislative session with the majority again, though the final margin was unclear late Tuesday. Republicans went into Election Day with a 37-33 edge in the House.

With Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, Martinez could face a difficult final two years in office.

“It looks like the governor has had a major loss by losing the House,” longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff said.

All 112 legislative seats were on the ballot, but there were contested races in only 44 of them. More than half of current House members and more than 60 percent of senators were guaranteed re-election, because they had no general election opposition.

Journal staff writers Olivier Uyttebrouck and Charles Brunt contributed to this report.