Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – While Democrats around the nation were dejected on the day after Election Day, the reconquest of the state House gave Democrats in New Mexico something to smile about.
Two years after Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time in six decades, Democrats took back the chamber by picking up at least four and possibly as many as six GOP-controlled seats, according to unofficial results.
That means they could hold a 38-32 advantage – the exact breakdown will depend on the results of several pending vote recounts – in the chamber when the 60-day legislative session starts in January. Democrats also expanded their majority in the 42-member Senate.
“It was bittersweet,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, of an election night in which Republican Donald Trump prevailed in a hard-fought presidential race. “We’re overjoyed by the circumstances locally, but devastated by the national scene.”
Democrats will also apparently go into next year’s session with a 26-16 advantage in the Senate, having picked up a net of two seats in that chamber. Republican newcomer Greg Baca ousted longtime Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, but Democrats won three GOP-held seats.
Meanwhile, top House Republicans expressed disappointment Wednesday about losing their majority in the House after just two years of control but said they were unable to overcome a big Democratic edge in voter turnout.
“I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of – I think everyone did a great job,” said House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, who will cede his leadership position when Democrats officially take control the House in January.
Tripp also vowed to ensure a smooth transition of power, and said he had reached out Tuesday evening via text message to House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who could be in line to be the next House speaker.
Although House Republicans passed bills in the past two years calling for tougher criminal penalties and changes to the state’s labor laws, the focus could shift under a Democratic-controlled House to jobs-related issues, possibly including a higher minimum wage.
Approval of a state ethics commission and an overhaul of the state’s system for funding public infrastructure projects could also be on Democrats’ to-do list in the coming session, Maestas said Wednesday.
Another consequence of the Democratic takeover of the House is that two-term GOP Gov. Susana Martinez now faces the prospect of spending her final two years in office with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate.
In a statement provided to the Journal, Martinez said she had spoken Wednesday with Egolf and planned to meet with him soon.
“New Mexico is very competitive, and a lot of these districts are decided by a few hundred votes or less. I’ve had a split government the whole time I’ve been in office, and we were able to get things done,” Martinez told the Journal . “The election is over and we’re going to work together to move New Mexico forward.”
In all, three legislative races appear headed for automatic vote recounts, which are required under state law when the margin between two legislative candidates is less than 1 percent. The recounts would be held after county and state voter canvasses are completed later this month.
Those races are:
⋄ Senate District 9, where incumbent Democrat John Sapien of Corrales held a 148-vote lead over Republican Diego Espinoza of Rio Rancho.
⋄ House District 23, where incumbent Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, trailed his Democratic opponent, Daymon Ely of Corrales, by a 72-vote margin.
⋄ House District 29, where first-term Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, was up by just two votes over Ronnie Martinez, a Democrat, in a race in which more than 13,800 voters cast ballots.