Sunday, October 17, 2004
Change Unlikely at Roundhouse
By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE If you're looking for leadership change in the Nov. 2 general election, don't count heavily on races for the New Mexico Legislature.
Political leaders say there are only slight chances for reversal of Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House.
Just 45 of all 112 seats are contested, for starters. Redistricting in 2001 and 2002 left many seats uncompetitive for challengers. The redrawing, following the 2000 Census, generally favored the re-election chances of incumbents. It's incumbents who legislate the district changes.
Meanwhile, the contests that are on the ballot are just now beginning to heat up, and individual wins or losses could end up being the bigger stories of legislative elections this season.
State House and Senate contests are traditionally slow to grab attention in a presidential election year, but interest usually picks up once early voting begins, said Gilbert St. Clair, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
Absentee voting began Oct. 5 and in-person early voting at satellite locations locations other than county clerks' offices began Saturday.
"That's when people pay more attention to the downballot races," he said.
Candidate activity is accelerating, and campaign literature is hitting mailboxes and inboxes across the state.
With less than a month to go, the Republicans, Democrats, independents and Libertarians hoping to represent their neighbors are making last attempts to contact voters by working the state's phones, front porches and piggy banks.
While Democrats have outnumbered Republicans for 18 years in the Senate and 51 years in the House, there is only wiggle room for change, especially in the Senate, observers said.
Republicans would have a majority if they gained four seats in the Senate.
In the House, Republicans would need to pick up nine seats to be the dominant party.
Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 24-18 in the Senate and 43-27 in the House.
Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff said he doesn't predict a big shift in the Legislature's overall makeup based on current voter registration and party performance numbers.
"You might have one or two upsets along the way, but those tend to wash each other out," Sanderoff said. "I can't imagine a net gain of four by either party."
For now, Democrat and Republican leaders are keeping their eyes mostly on the Senate, where the tightest races are expected.
"We feel pretty good about our incumbents," said John Wertheim, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "We're playing offense, not defense, because of the record we've delivered," he said, listing tax cuts and money for education among them.
Greg Graves, the state's Republican Party's executive director, said his party has fielded candidates he thinks could pick up at least two seats in the Senate.
"We feel confident in the races we have," he said. But he said his party likely won't gain control of the Senate.
"The big reason is redistricting," he said. "There's just not a lot of competitive races," he said.
House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs said the GOP could pick up "two to four" seats in the House. But that gain would not be enough to take the reins from the Democrats.
Another reason legislative seats often go uncontested is the part-time, volunteer nature of New Mexico's "citizen Legislature."
Members are compensated for expenses while they are on legislative business, but they receive no salary and must be free to spend a month or two in Santa Fe each year for the state's alternating-length lawmaking sessions. Interim committee meetings have taken up more and more time for lawmakers between sessions.
"A lot of people have to maintain a job, and to maintain a job and take two months off is a difficult proposition," Hobbs said.
Several contests in the Senate are expected to be especially competitive because of Democratic-Republican registration ratios after redistricting, as well as past election trends.
Those Senate races could include the contest in Albuquerque between Albuquerque Republican Sen. H. Diane Snyder and Democrat Chris Berkheimer for District 15.
The contest for the District 10 seat in northwest Bernalillo County and southeast Sandoval County between Republican John Ryan and Democrat John Hooker could also be close. The District 10 contest, with Sen. Ramsay Gorham not seeking re-election, has no incumbent.
In the House, both parties are focusing on the Albuquerque contest between Democratic Rep. Al Park and Republican Kathie Leyendecker in House District 26.
Also being watched is the race between Republican Rep. Eric Youngberg and Democrat Janice Kando in House District 23 in northwest Albuquerque and Corrales. Another competitive Albuquerque matchup may be between Republican Rep. Teresa Zanetti and Democrat Bill O'Neill in House District 15.
Another race observers say could be close is the one between Rio Rancho Democrat Rep. Tom Swisstack and Republican Glenn Walters in House District 60 in Sandoval County.
Who and what
Guide to candidates and ballot questions in Nov. 2 general election Inside