Senate majority leader says he willingly endured loss for good of party

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s not that powerful Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez is happy about his ouster from the Legislature at the hands of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez; he isn’t. But he says he has something to be thankful for.

“I’m glad she spent all her resources on me, and that opened up the door” for Democrats to win other races, taking back the House and shoring up their numbers in the Senate, he said.

Sen. Michael Sanchez
Sen. Michael Sanchez

Sanchez lost the Valencia County seat he has held for 24 years to Republican newcomer Greg Baca, after the political committee run by Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and other advertising attacking Sanchez.

Martinez, who has blamed Sanchez for years for blocking her legislative agenda, said after his defeat he was “a politician who abused his power and ignored his constituents.”

The governor had also tried, without success, to get Sanchez defeated four years ago.

“I’m really grateful for her aiming at me,” Sanchez told the Journal on Friday. “They focused their attention on me, and they didn’t pay attention to what they needed to pay attention to.”

McCleskey disputed that, saying at least three-fourths of the more than $2 million spent by super PAC Advance New Mexico Now in the general election cycle was spent outside Sanchez’s district. Advance was active in more than a dozen legislative districts.

“If Michael Sanchez is looking for a silver lining to his defeat, he needs to keep looking,” McCleskey said in an email. “We didn’t go on TV against him until we had fully funded our budgets for other races.”

Advance New Mexico Now was one of several independent expenditure groups – which have no spending limits but aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates – influencing this year’s elections.

Sanchez’s campaign, which spent nearly $400,000 as of this month, hit back with TV ads of his own attacking Baca and Advance New Mexico Now. He also got help from at least one super PAC, New Mexico Together, as well as other Democratic PACs and prominent Democrats.

Democrats apparently picked up five or even six seats – recounts are pending – to regain control of the House, which they had lost to the GOP two years ago. In the Senate, Democrats apparently added one or two seats to their existing majority, according to unofficial returns.

Sanchez’s loss had echoes of 16 years ago, when McCleskey gained prominence engineering the defeat of Sanchez’s brother, Raymond Sanchez, who had served in the House for 30 years and was the House speaker when he lost his seat.

In that 2000 race, McCleskey managed the campaign of an unknown roofing company owner, John Sanchez, who beat Raymond Sanchez in a district in Albuquerque’s North Valley. John Sanchez is now Martinez’s lieutenant governor.

One of the themes of that 2000 race was challenger John Sanchez accusing Speaker Raymond Sanchez of “coddling criminals” by dragging his feet on legislation to toughen laws against child pornography and sex offenders.

In the race that Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez lost this week, McCleskey’s super PAC attacked the lawmaker in ads featuring the mothers of young crime victims and accusing Sanchez of lacking empathy and “cradling criminals.”

Those ads were “much more personal and emotional and influential” than previous anti-Sanchez ads, said Albuquerque pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff.

“Michael Sanchez seemed to be the political nemesis of the governor. It got personal between them, clearly. … It seems like she was firmly committed to take him down politically,” he said.

The ads also included mailers that said Sanchez had made a trip to Hawaii on the taxpayers’ dime. He says he has never been there.

“It didn’t help matters for Michael Sanchez that Valencia County has turned more Republican over the past few decades,” Sanderoff said.

In 1992, the year Sanchez was first elected, 61 percent of registered voters in the county were Democrats, and 33 percent Republicans. Now, while the Republican registration remains at 33 percent, the Democratic registration has dropped to 45 percent, with the others being independent or minor-party voters. Overall, voters are leaning to the GOP.

The Senate majority leader controls the voting agenda, and Martinez blames him for single-handedly bottling up a number of her proposals. Sanchez and other senators say he has reflected the will of the Democratic caucus.

Sanderoff said Sanchez has never been one to shift his voting based on political expediency.

“He took some tough stances, some pretty liberal stances, for a county whose politics have been shifting for a couple of decades – and he paid the price,” the analyst said.

Sanchez said he will devote his time to his law practice and doesn’t plan to hang out in Santa Fe – unless he returns to coach his former colleagues in the annual House-Senate basketball game.

“I’m not going to be a lobbyist,” he said.

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