New Mexico State Senate makes decisive left turn

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Heath Haussamen/New Mexico In Depth

A statue of children outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

New Mexicans woke up on Wednesday not knowing who their next president would be. We’ll stay tuned to that nailbiter of a race, which appears will be decided in a few key states. New Mexico isn’t one of them. It handily voted for Biden, but that was never in serious doubt. 

While Americans don’t know who will be president, one thing closer to home became clear after Tuesday night: New Mexico’s state senate will shift to the left, potentially opening a path in the Legislature for long stymied Democratic initiatives. 

Democrats increased their majority in that chamber by one seat in an election that saw New Mexicans turn out in record numbers — 915,376 cast ballots, shattering the previous total of 833,000 set in 2008. 

More significant, though, is a shift within the makeup of the parties, with a slate of more progressive Democrats replacing longtime incumbents in both parties. As uncertainty looms over womens’ right to make their own choices regarding abortion, joining the Senate will be Democrats who have pledged to repeal a long-dormant ban on abortion in state law. The new Democrats have also signaled a willingness to support tapping the state’s permanent land grant fund to boost early childhood education spending, an effort relentlessly pushed by progressive Democrats but blocked in large part by outgoing Democrat John Arthur Smith, who lost re-election in the June primary. 

In the balance, the new senators brighten prospects the Legislature will legalize adult recreational use of cannabis, given the proposal enjoys bi-partisan support. 

Republicans notched their own victories Tuesday night, taking two Democratic seats formerly held by John Arthur Smith and Clemente Sanchez, beating the insurgent progressive challengers who showed the veteran lawmakers the door in the June primary. And one Republican House member, Gregg Schmedes, will join the senate after defeating incumbent Republican Jim White during the primary.

But Democrats had a better night, beating GOP senators Sander Rue and Candace Gould, and winning the seat of Sen. Bill Payne, who didn’t seek reelection this year after 24 years in the senate. All three seats are in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, continuing the Democratic consolidation of legislative seats in Albuquerque.

In addition to those wins, four Democrats replace outgoing Democrats John Sapien, who didn’t seek reelection this year, and Gabriel Ramos, Richard Martinez and Mary Kay Papen, all of whom lost in June.

New Senators: 

District 5: Democrat Leo Jaramillo ousted incumbent Richard Martinez during the primary for this district that contains portions of four northern New Mexico counties. Martinez has served in the Senate since 2001. A drunken driving incident in 2019 is credited with damaging his reelection prospects. 

District 9: Democrat Brenda Grace McKenna takes the Albuquerque area seat of John Sapien, who decided to not run for reelection. Sapien joined the Senate in 2009. 

District 10: Democrat Katy Duhigg ousted incumbent Republican Candace Gould, who held this seat covering portions of Bernalillo and Sandoval counties for one term beginning in 2017. 

District 19: Republican Gregg Schmedes moves from the House to the Senate in this multi-county seat in the state’s center, after ousting Republican Jim White in the June primary. White served in the House from 2009-2014, and joined the Senate in 2017. 

District 20: In the Senate since 1997, Republican William Payne, decided to not run for reelection this year. His Albuquerque area seat was picked up by a Democrat, Martin Hickey.

District 23: Republican Sander Rue, who joined the Senate in 2009, has survived competitive races before. But not this year. Democrat Harold Pope Jr. will step into his seat come January. 

District 28: It was unclear Tuesday who would prevail in this Silver City area seat. In the end, Democrat Siah Correa Hemphill eeked out a win against her GOP opponent after beating incumbent Gabriel Ramos during the June primary. 

District 30: Republican Joshua Sanchez prevailed in this western New Mexico seat, over Democrat Pamela Cordova who beat incumbent Clemente Sanchez in the June Primary. 

District 35: As many predicted, the former seat of Democrat John Arthur Smith went to a Republican, Crystal Diamond. Smith lost the seat in the June primary to Neomi Martinez-Parra. 

District 38: Democrat Carrie Hamblen prevailed over her Republican opponent in this Las Cruces area seat, after she ousted Senate President Mary Kay Papen during the primary. Papen has served in the Senate since 2001.

New Mexico’s CD-2

The U.S. House of Representatives remains under Democratic control. That may be one reason much of the media didn’t mention the flip in southern New Mexico’s second congressional district, with Republican Yvette Herrell prevailing in her second attempt for the seat. But the race didn’t escape the attention of the political parties or the outside spenders who sought to influence the outcome. The race was among the most expensive in the country, topping $30 million in spending before Election Day, according to the Campaign Finance Institute at Two years ago, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small beat Herrell by fewer than 4,000 votes out of nearly 200,000 ballots cast. Last night’s contest ended much differently, with Herrell besting Torres Small by more than 20,000 votes out of 262,000 cast.  

Election Tidbit

Arizonans voted for a ballot measure that legalized adult recreational use of cannabis. Expect marijuana shops to pop up along our border with that state, allowing Arizona to capture the tax dollars of New Mexicans. 

This piece was originally published in New Mexico In Depth’s newsletter. Sign up here to receive our newsletter and articles in your inbox.

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