Democrats dream of expanded majority in State Senate

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In the wake of a “progressive wave” in June’s Democratic primaries that swept out of office a group of powerful incumbent Democrats, the state Senate will look very different come January. The wins could help progressive Democrats advance key initiatives, like tapping the Land Grant permanent fund for early childhood programs or getting rid of a criminal abortion law on the books since the 1960s. 

But first, the victorious challengers must win on Tuesday or other closely contested seats largely within the Albuquerque metro area must flip if Democrats want to strengthen their 26-16 advantage in the chamber. 

New Mexico In Depth identified 10 Senate districts in which the difference between registered Democratic and Republican voters is below 4,000. We then charted out candidate spending for each race, as well as the level of in-kind contributions for each candidate. The in-kind contributions reflect spending by party leaders on behalf of the candidates, who then included the value of that spending in their own campaign reports.

Four of the districts have been in Democratic hands prior to 2020, while six have been held by Republicans. Just one is among the group of five districts that progressives claimed in the June primary when they unseated their more conservative Democratic peers. Eight of the 10 are in the Albuquerque area. 

Not all of the following 10 contests appear to be competitive, but we included them anyway because of the voter registration data. A significant wild card in assessing the strength of Democratic versus Republican candidates in any New Mexico race is the steady growth over the last decade of voters registered with neither party, from 15% in 2008 to 23% this year. 

In southeastern New Mexico District 35, Neomi Martinez Parra, D-Las Cruces, is facing off against Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, after defeating incumbent Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, this June. This is the marquee state senate race, with Republicans viewing Smith’s former seat as a pickup opportunity after the ouster of the powerful Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Spending by the candidates reflects this reality; Diamond has spent over $240,000, while Martinez-Parra has spent a respectable $160,000.

Comprising much of Albuquerque’s West Side, Democrats see Senate District 23 as a prime pickup opportunity. Democratic challenger Harold Pope Jr. has outspent incumbent Republican Senator Sander Rue by over $30,000. Still, Rue has served 12 years, winning three previous elections, and has proven he can win highly competitive races. 

Anchored in Albuquerque’s North Valley, Senate District 10 is another potential pickup opportunity for Democrats. Incumbent Republican Sen. Candace Gould has outspent her Democratic opponent Katy Duhigg, though not by much. Contribution data reveal substantial investment by Senate Democratic Leadership, including upwards of $50,000 spent by New Mexico Senate Democrats on mailers, polling, and “digital communications.”

The open District 20 seat in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights is being vacated by incumbent Republican Sen. William Payne. Democrat Martin Hickey and Senate Democratic Leadership have spent big on this race, in a bid to pick up a seat long in Republican hands.

In a bid to move to the Senate, State House Rep. Gregg Schmedes successfully “primaried” Republican incumbent James White for the mountainous District 19 seat just east of Albuquerque. Schmedes is now running against Democratic challenger Claudia Risner. And Democrats are making a strong play for the seat, including $134,000 spent by Risner and another $30,000 spent by New Mexico Senate Democrats. 

District 29, just south of the Albuquerque metro area in Valencia County, is yet another where a Democratic challenger is outspending a Republican incumbent. Democrat Paul Baca has spent over $88,000 to Republican Sen. Gregory Baca’s roughly $65,000. The two are not related. Baca, the incumbent, has served one term after defeating former Senate Majority leader Michael Sanchez in 2016. But the play by Democrats may be wishful thinking as the Republican share of registered voters has increased by 4 points since 2016.

Sen. William Soules is likely safe in the Las Cruces District 37 seat. He has outspent his Republican opponent Dave Gallus by a factor of over 3-to-1, and his opponent’s sum is edged out even by Senate Democratic leadership’s investment of $22,000. Still, Democrats maintain a registration advantage of less than 4,000 here, and 26% of voters registered with neither party. 

Democratic Sen. John Sapien retired this year from the Sandoval County District 9 seat, anchored in Rio Rancho and Corrales. Democrats aren’t taking any chances, dumping money into the race. Democrat Brenda McKenna has easily outspent her opponent, Republican John Clark.

Incumbent Sen. Bill Tallman defeated a Republican incumbent to win the District 18 seat in 2016. Republicans see an opportunity to retake the seat, based in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, and Tallman is giving it his all. Republican Ryan Chavez has spent a respectable sum— over $66,000— but still just half of Tallman’s $117,02681.

Though the District 21 seat is also based in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, Democrats have not made the same investment here as elsewhere. Moores has been an incumbent for eight years, and incumbents are difficult to beat. That may explain why Democrat Athena Christodoulou has spent just $15,000 in her bid to unseat Moores. Still, one could see this seat flipping in a wave election– Republicans maintain a registration advantage of just over 1,700 here.

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