New Mexico 2016 Election: Will the state house swing?

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2016 ElectionIt’s election day. Here are a few of the questions being decided that we find particularly interesting.

Will Republicans be able to keep their historic wins in 2014 that gave them a State House majority and the Secretary of State’s office?

While the 2016 presidential race is getting all the attention, whether or not Republicans hang on to their first majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives in 60 years tops our to-watch list.

Back in 2014, a non-presidential election year, the Republicans picked up enough seats to wrangle a 37-33 majority, booting Democrats out after six decades of control.  Nationally, New Mexico was one of eleven state legislative chambers that flipped to Republican control, while no chambers flipped to Democratic control.

Republican Dianna Duran also defended in 2014 her status as the first GOP candidate in 80 years to win Secretary of State in 2010 against a strong challenge from Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Duran, however, resigned in disgrace last year hours before she pleaded guilty to embezzlement and money laundering charges. That’s why this year’s special race is necessary.

Two years ago, the environment was more favorable to Republicans. A convergence of factors explains that.

Generally, GOP voters turn out in greater numbers than Democrats in midterm — non-presidential — elections.

Combine that with a large volume of negative advertising driven by Gov. Susana Martinez’s campaign that arguably depressed voter turnout.

Despite it never being a competitive race the contest for New Mexico governor in 2014 was the third most-negative gubernatorial race in the nation, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

Martinez’s campaign spent more than $3.1 million in TV advertising in her re-election race against then-Attorney General Gary King, who spent less than $1 million. Martinez defeated King 57 percent to 43 percent, winning all but five of the state’s 33 counties.

The loss appears in part due to New Mexico’s Democratic leaning voters being less enthusiastic about their line up of candidates two years ago, which likely was reinforced by the onslaught of negative advertising that targeted King, the Democrats’ standard bearer in 2014.

In the end, just over 40 percent of New Mexico’s eligible voters turned out for the 2014 general election, the lowest rate in years. When Martinez won election in 2010 voter turnout reached 53 percent.

Did that voter turnout impact other races?

It’s likely. Toulouse Oliver outraised Duran in 2014, but lost the contest. It’s difficult, however, to state with certainty the influence of any one factor, although one can infer.

Fast forward to today. Expect voter turnout to rise significantly, including among Democrats.

It’s a contentious presidential election in which the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, leads Republican Donald Trump in New Mexico, according to multiple polls.

Will that increase in voter turnout and Clinton’s lead influence “down-ballot” contests?

From where we sit, it looks positive for Toulouse Oliver, whose fundraising is outpacing 2014 and 2010.

But it’s harder to say whether the Democrats will be able to take back the majority in the state house. Given the lack of transparency in super PAC spending, it’s harder to understand how much negative campaigning is happening in smaller legislative races across the state.

In a high voter turnout year, Democrats should be optimistic. But if they can’t retake the majority and Republicans retain control in a year extremely favorable to Democrats, it will raise more interesting questions, such as: Is New Mexico, which has become reliably Democratic at the presidential level in recent elections, gradually turning red in lower-ballot races, and if so, why?

Will Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez retain his seat despite being targeted for defeat by big money?

2016 is essentially round two in Gov. Susana Martinez’s bid to unseat Democratic Senate leadership. In 2012, she and her political consultant Jay McClesky got the credit for unseating Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, and they did their best to unseat Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez as well.

Now, Sanchez is fighting again. He’s been “targeted with laser-like precision by Advance New Mexico Now, the super PAC operated by Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political aides,” writes New Mexico In Depth’s Sandra Fish. The super PAC is spending nearly $370,000 on TV ads attacking Sanchez.

Sanchez wields enormous power in the Senate because he controls when–or if–legislation is debated and voted on by the full Senate. He’s proven to be a consistent thorn in the side of Gov. Martinez, hindering her efforts to advance an agenda. Taking him out would give her a boost in 2017.

Will New Mexico voters reform the state’s commercial cash-bail system?

New Mexico’s legislators placed a constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot, asking voters to decide whether to reform the state’s cash bail system. The way it works currently allows those with money to go free even if they’ve allegedly committed violent crimes, or have a violent history. Meanwhile non-violent people often sit in jail for days or weeks on end waiting for their trial because they can’t afford bail offered by a commercial bail company.

If New Mexicans pass the measure, and polling suggests they will, judges will be allowed discretion to keep those prone to violence in jail without bail. And they’ll be barred from keeping people in jail if they can prove to the judge that they don’t have money for bail.

Will New Mexicans wake up Wednesday morning with recreational marijuana legally available in two neighboring states?

Arizona was ahead of the curve in legalizing medical marijuana, with a voter initiative first passing in the same year as California–1996. But in that state legislators are allowed to amend voter initiatives, a right they used to effectively kill the initiative. It wasn’t until 2010 that Arizona passed a functioning medical pot law, joining a growing block of med-pot states.

But it’s a toss-up at this point whether the state will join the next wave of states legalizing recreational use of cannabis.

Five states will vote Tuesday on whether to legalize adult recreational use of cannabis: California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, and Maine.  They would join four states that currently allow adult use: Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Tuesday’s outcome on the Arizona proposition looks like a real nailbiter.  But New Mexicans may wake up on Wednesday with recreational marijuana for sale across its border not only with Colorado, but with Arizona as well.

NMID’s Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

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