Many New Mexico voters lack choices in legislative races

Print More

This is New Mexico In Depth’s mid-week newsletter. We think it’s crucial to stay in touch and tell you what’s on our minds every week. Please let us know what’s on your mind as well. Or, got tips? What do we need to know? Contact us: [email protected]

As the 2024 primary election gets underway, it bears pointing out the slim opportunities New Mexicans actually have to cast a meaningful vote for the people who represent them in the Legislature. 

First, a big chunk of legislative districts have so many Democrats or so many Republicans that there isn’t a serious race for those seats in the November general election. 

There will be a few hot races – where both parties will have hard fought primaries and then a hard-fought general election. But there aren’t many. 

Here are some numbers to brew on: 

In the Senate, there are just four districts out of 42 where there’s a fairly even split between Republicans and Democrats – districts 12, 21, 29 and 40. All four are in the state’s metropolitan region around Albuquerque. Republicans have safe seats in 11 districts. Democrats have 27 safe seats. 

By “safe,” I mean the voter share of one party is more than 40%. Even if the incumbent has a challenger in the general election, the incumbent has a strong likelihood of winning even if the race is lively. Many incumbents have no challenger at all. 

In the House, by the same metrics, there are just 13 seats out of 70 where neither party has more than 40% of the voter share. I count 16 safe Republican seats in the House, and 41 safe Democratic seats. 

36 incumbents across the two chambers have no challenger at all.

Second, in some but not all of those “safe” districts where there’s not much of a general election, if any, primary election voters will determine who gets to serve in the Legislature.  In most of those races, in effect, a minority of voters will choose the state lawmaker. That’s because New Mexico excludes voters not registered with either major party from participating in the primary. Independent voters make up about a quarter of the voting public. 

There are other issues regarding representation as well – namely, how the once-a-decade redistricting process skews in favor of one group over the other. It’s true that more New Mexicans are registered as Democrats than Republicans, so Democrats’ majority hold on the Legislature reflects that demographic reality. 

But there’s a difference between exercising one’s majority and inordinate domination of the field. Consider these numbers: Democrats safely control 59% of House seats, and 64% of Senate seats – based on the criteria that more than 40% of a district is composed of registered Democrats. But when it comes to registered voters in the state, just 43% are signed up as Democrats.

The primary races I’m watching

Because there are so many seats where there won’t be a serious general election race, the winners of a nice chunk of legislative seats will be determined in the primary election. 

Some of these primary races will be hot, some won’t. At this stage I’m using an educated assessment from years of watching races, with a slight bit of guesswork, to pinpoint the races I think will be hot. At this stage, much of my take is based on how much money candidates have raised (rather than loaned themselves) and other indications of support from within their own party, plus my own knowledge of how particular incumbents have weathered past challenges. 

This year, there are a handful of races with numerous people running for seats where the incumbent has retired – those should be interesting, but it’s unclear yet how hotly contested most will be. 

There are a handful of races that have been pinpointed by some watchers as hot, but if they don’t have much of a campaign account – the first public reports were due on Monday –  they’re not hot to me, yet. Here are the primaries I’m watching, at the moment, with particular interest. 

House District 16: Albuquerque area Democrat Yanira Gurrola, the progressive favorite, was appointed to fill the seat of then Rep. Moe Maestas after he was appointed to the Senate. Gurrola is being challenged by Marsella Duarte, who was briefly appointed to the same legislative seat by the Bernalillo County Commission before being replaced by a newly revamped commission the following month.  

House District 27: Albuquerque area Democratic incumbent Marian Matthews is being challenged by Greg Seeley, who appears to have backing from the progressive faction of the party. 

House District 70: Northern New Mexico Democratic incumbent Ambrose Castellano has a large campaign account. But his challenger, Anita Gonzales, has been publicly endorsed and heavily donated to by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and she has the backing of the progressive faction of the party as well. 

Senate District 13: Albuquerque area Democratic incumbent Bill O’Neill is being challenged by a former Bernalillo County Commissioner, Debbie O’Malley, who is a progressive favorite. O’Malley has more than $60,000 in her account so far. 

Senate District 15: Albuquerque area Democratic incumbent Daniel Ivey-Soto is facing Heather Berghmans. This will be an interesting race to watch – a significant progressive faction has loudly indicated they will attempt to get Ivey-Soto out, but sprinkled among his campaign donors are a handful of progressive lawmakers. 

Senate District 26: An Albuquerque west-sider, Sen. Moe Maestas has had a long legislative tenure, but almost entirely in the House of Representatives. He was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy two years ago. He’s now running to win his first Senate election. His challenger, Julie Radoslovich, has raised $80,000.

Senate District 30: Former Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez was primaried by progressives in 2020, losing his seat. Rather than dole out his campaign account to help others get elected over the past four years, he held onto it and is using it now to return to the senate. He’s running for a redrawn district in western New Mexico that doesn’t have an incumbent. He’s going up against Angel Charley, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation, who will likely have significant support from the progressive political faction of the party. 

Leave a Reply