State Republicans are angling to take over New Mexico’s House of Representatives, and if they do, it will be the first time since 1953. Democrats have a majority in the House by a margin of just four seats today. With all 70 seats up for reelection this year, the GOP is eying a handful of positions where Democrats appear vulnerable in upcoming Nov. 4 general election.
The stakes are high. Democrats have a hold on the Senate with 25 seats compared to just 17 held by Republicans. Yet the leadership in the upper chamber has historically been controlled by a coalition of conservative Democrats who often buck their party on issues like tapping into the state's permanent fund to finance early childhood education initiatives.
Last year, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, helped block that initiative, despite the fact that it was a top priority for his party. State senators don't face elections until 2016.
Hence if Republicans take over the House and if Republican Gov. Susana Martinez earns reelection, she stands to benefit. A more conservative House would help move her legislative priorities through both chambers and land them on her desk.
Campaign finance disclosures due to the Secretary of State's office Sept. 8 are anticipated to reflect that what were once small-town races for two-year, unpaid terms in the House are now big-money contests backed by out-of-state interests seeking to influence the makeup of the lower chamber of New Mexico's legislature.
So far, 131 House candidates have raised $2.7 million and spent $1.3 million, according to data compiled by the Secretary of State.
That's just money going directly to candidates. Individuals, companies, unions and other organizations finance the races through a confusing web of political committees and nonprofits that don't have to answer to either candidates or voters.
Since the 2010 US Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, federal courts have been eviscerating state laws that cap the amount of cash that political committees can raise and spend in elections. This year will also be the first statewide general election following the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Republican Party of New Mexico v. King. The federal panel ruled that no limits can be imposed on contributions made to political committees that don't coordinate expenditures with candidates. Alarmingly, a report released last week by the good-government nonprofit Common Cause New Mexico notes that New Mexico's state campaign laws fail to define what constitutes "coordination" between candidates and independent expenditure committees.
House Minority Whip Nate Gentry has been leading the New Mexico Republican Party's effort to take over the House.
With just over $84,000 in the bank for the 2014 election season, Gentry has raised more than any other GOP House candidates. Yet that money only reflects what he's raised for his own candidate committee.
Gentry sits on the "legislative leaders advisory board" of GOPAC, a Washington DC group that recently called New Mexico one of three state House chambers nationwide where Republicans have the "best opportunity" to gain a majority.
"We are very pleased to join with New Mexico House Republicans in their bid to gain majority control for the first time in over 60 years," reads a press release from the group. "Over the past eighteen months, House Republican Whip Nate Gentry has developed a multi-faceted campaign effort to win in November. His highly effective and sophisticated approach will be a model for future state legislative races across the country."
Meanwhile, the Ken Martinez Leadership Fund, headed by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, a Democrat from Grants, raised $98,000 in the month of June.
Former Rep. Andy Nuñez tells SFR that Gov. Martinez is helping him in his bid to retake his Doña Ana County seat from Democrat Phil Archuleta, who ousted Nuñez in a three-way race during the 2012 elections where Nuñez ran as an Independent. Nuñez, the mayor of Hatch and a former Democrat, is now running for the southern seat as a Republican.
And with the latest party switch, the governor is backing his run. "She's not against me now like she was last time," he says. "She's got people walking and knocking on doors for me."
In Los Alamos, Republican candidate Geoff Rodgers is trying to beat Democrat Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, who narrowly defeated her Republican opponent in 2012. In Albuquerque, Republican Conrad James is attempting to retake the seat he lost two years ago to Democrat Liz Thomson. In House District 50, which encompasses Eldorado, Republican incumbent Vickie Perea faces Democrat Matthew McQueen. Last year, Gov. Martinez appointed Perea to that seat following the death of Democratic Rep. Stephen Easley. That Martinez selected a Republican for the replacement narrowed the margin in the House between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats, who now hold 37 seats to the Republicans' 33, are hoping to win back the seat. They're also hoping to oust Kelly Fajardo in Valencia County, Paul Pacheco in Albuquerque and Terry McMillan, who won his Doña Ana County seat by a mere eight votes in 2012.
McQueen outraised Perea in June, and with over $48,000 in the bank, he had $14,000 more cash on hand than she did. The last campaign finance report shows McQueen with $6,000 in contributions, thanks largely to a $2,500 contribution from Forward New Mexico PAC, which reported donations from the Washington DC union office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Meanwhile, Perea's largest contribution—$1,550—came not from her constituents, but from the Chaves County Republican Committee, which reported nearly the same amount in anonymous, $100 contributions weeks before giving to Perea.
While the weather gets colder following Labor Day, campaign season will heat up.
"We could be on the cusp of taking it over or we could be six down by the end of the night," says Bob Cornelius, a GOP political consultant. "It just all depends on what happens the next 60 or so days."