SANTA FE – The 2024 race for the New Mexico Senate could be a wild one.
Redistricting created two open seats – one covering parts of Rio Rancho and northwestern Albuquerque, the other stretching from Isleta Pueblo to the Arizona line.
Retirements and primary challenges also have the potential to shake up the chamber next year, with at least a handful of House members weighing plans to run for the Senate.
And Albuquerque, as usual, is shaping up as a battleground.
Four of the five most closely divided Senate districts lie in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho. The fifth is in Valencia County.
“We’re confident we have some opportunities, especially in the metro area,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said in an interview. “We have a slew of issues that New Mexico faces that I think Republicans really have the answers to.”
Democrats have plenty of territory to protect. They hold a 27-15 majority in the Senate and will be defending competitive seats in Albuquerque and elsewhere.
But they have pickup opportunities, too, including the newly reshaped district covering Isleta, Laguna and Acoma pueblos.
“I think it’s fair to say Senate Democrats are feeling very good about the 2024 cycle,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said. “We have a string of significant legislative victories that have happened in our current term.”
A year out from the primary election, however, there’s plenty of uncertainty about the landscape.
Lawmakers who haven’t decided yet whether to seek reelection – such as Democratic Sen. Bill Tallman of Albuquerque and Republican Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs – have no reason to announce anything soon.
And, of course, the selection of presidential nominees and other factors will shape the broader political environment by the time voters start casting general election ballots.
Brian Sanderoff, a nonpartisan analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc., the state’s redistricting contractor, said it’s too early to say which party will face political headwinds.
“It’s going to be challenging for the Republicans to make massive inroads,” he said “but, of course, we won’t know until we see what happens with the national mood.”
The 2024 ballot in New Mexico will include races for president, a U.S. Senate seat and all 112 seats in the Legislature. Members of the state Senate stand for election every four years, and House districts are on the ballot every two.
Swing seat on West Side
Next year’s elections will be the first under the new Senate map adopted in a bitter special session in 2021.
A new seat – perhaps Republican-leaning, but competitive – emerged in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho as lawmakers took the district now represented by Democrat Gerald Ortiz y Pino in Downtown Albuquerque and moved it to the West Side.
Ortiz y Pino, now his 19th year in the Senate, isn’t seeking reelection.
The new version of District 12 will extend from the Paradise Hills area of Albuquerque north into Rio Rancho.
Republicans have outperformed Democrats by 6 percentage points in the precincts that make up the new district, according to an analysis by Research & Polling. The analysis examined elections over a recent 10-year stretch.
Democrats, however, have found increasing success in Albuquerque the last few election cycles.
Wirth, the Democratic leader, describes District 12 as a “50-50” district. Democrats, he said, have a strong record to run on, including the repeal of an anti-abortion law, the expansion of early childhood funding through a constitutional amendment and the legalization of cannabis.
Republicans see the seat as a prime pickup opportunity. The district has already drawn two high-profile GOP candidates – former state Sen. Candace Gould and Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year.
Native voting strength
Democrats have a chance to flip the other open seat.
The new map takes District 30 – now represented by Republican Joshua Sanchez of Veguita – and stretches it from the Manzano Mountains to the Arizona line.
The change is expected to boost the influence of Native American voters. District 30 will encompass Isleta, Laguna and Acoma pueblos and the Alamo Navajo reservation.
Native American residents make up 35% of the adult population, and the district will have a substantial Democratic lean.
The boundary changes paired Sen. Sanchez with Baca, the Republican leader, in nearby District 29, meaning they’d have to move or run against each other to keep a seat in the chamber.
Baca said he had nothing to announce on that front. But he noted that Sanchez flipped the district in 2020 and is well-positioned to appeal to voters in the new boundaries of District 30.
More broadly, Baca said, Republican senators have plenty to offer the electorate, especially on crime, the border and economic growth.
Even while outnumbered by Democrats, he said, Republicans played a key role in crafting fixes to the state’s medical malpractice law.
The two seats opened by redistricting are certain to be a priority of both parties in 2024.
“They’re the two districts most likely to flip,” Sanderoff said.
The Senate is home to the longest-serving members of the Legislature, and both parties have retirements to prepare for.
But who will opt against reelection isn’t entirely clear yet.
In April, Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell said he would forgo reelection, citing redistricting changes. The announcement also came a month after sheriff’s deputies responded to a verbal argument involving Pirtle and his wife, who said she’d caught him with another woman.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said she plans to run for Pirtle’s seat. It’s a heavily Republican area covering a chunk of southeastern New Mexico.
Tallman, a Democrat whose district stretches through much of the Northeast Heights in Albuquerque, said he hasn’t decided yet whether to seek reelection.
His district leans Democratic but has been competitive.
Kernan, a Republican from southeastern New Mexico, said she is considering her options. Her district is the most heavily Republican area in the state, according to the Research & Polling analysis.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said he is considering a run for the Senate if Kernan opts for retirement.
Meanwhile, the longest-serving legislator, Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales, said he plans to run for reelection.
But if he doesn’t, state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, plans to run.
“I would never run against Stuart,” Nibert said in an interview. But “if he doesn’t run, then I will be running for it.”
The Senate, of course, could change substantially even without the partisan makeup moving much.
In 2020, for example, five Democratic incumbents lost their primaries to more left-leaning challengers, and two conservative Republicans defeated GOP incumbents.
State Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, is among the House members weighing a campaign for the Senate – a race that would set up him to challenge Republican Sen. Ron Griggs of Alamogordo.
Whether Griggs runs for reelection, Townsend said, won’t be a factor.
“If I decide to run, I’ll run because I believe I’d bring more to the table,” Townsend said.
Griggs and Townsend described themselves as friends. It’s a heavily Republican district.
Griggs, for his part, said he plans to seek reelection. He said he respects Townsend’s decision and noted that politically, “we see almost everything the same way.”
The races will come into focus after lawmakers meet next year for a 30-day session, ending in February.
Candidate filing day is in March, and the primary election is June 4, the general election Nov. 5.
Every lawmaker – even those in districts safe for one party or another – is adjusting to the reshaped boundaries.
“All of us are getting used to having new constituents,” Wirth said.