‘Ground zero’ for control of Legislature
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
Albuquerque pollster Bruce Donisthorpe thinks the balance of power in one or both houses of the New Mexico Legislature may come down to races in Doña Ana County.
“Las Cruces and Doña Ana County are ground zero for the control of the state Legislature in this campaign,” said Donisthorpe, who has been polling local city, county and legislative races for nearly a decade. He owns BWD Global, a strategic communications company.
In 2014, Republicans picked up House seats in Las Cruces area districts 36 (Andy Nuñez), 39 (John Zimmerman) and 53 (Rick Little), and that helped propel them to a 37-to-33 advantage over Democrats.
“Slowly but surely, Republicans picked up House seats in 2010, 2012 and 2014, so they finally took over,” Donisthorpe said.
Nuñez is unique in state history, because he has held the District 36 seat as a Democrat, an independent and now as a Republican. He defeated incumbent Democrat Phillip Archuleta in 2014, and faces former Las Cruces City Councillor Nathan Small, a Democrat, this November.
Zimmerman and former state Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez, a Democrat, will also be squaring off for the third time in three elections. Martinez defeated Zimmerman by 420 votes in 2012. Zimmerman defeated Martinez by 344 votes in 2014.
Little won the District 53 seat in 2010, defeating then incumbent Nathan Cote, a Democrat. Cote defeated Little in a rematch in 2012 and retired two years later. Little won the seat back in 2014, defeating Democrat Mariaelena Johnson.
Another interesting local House race may be in District 37, held by Dr. Terry McMillan, a Republican, since 2010. His opponent for the third consecutive time is Democrat Joanne Ferrary. He defeated her by nine votes in 2012 and by 409 votes in 2014.
State Senate Pro-Tem Mary Kay Papen, D- Doña Ana, dean of the local legislative delegation, said she expects some close races for local House seats, and said, “the incumbent always has an edge.”
“The Democrats want to take the House back,” Papen said. “They’re going to have to work really hard.”
“We’re very optimistic about every race down there,” said New Mexico Republican Party Communications Director W. Tucker Keene.
The party, he said, has hired a field director to focus on Doña Ana County legislative races and to “have someone on the ground in that county.” He said the state GOP has “a list of something like 10 races that we’re paying very close attention to” in the county.
Two of the state Senate’s most hotly contested races in 2016 likely will be in Las Cruces. “What you’ve really got is both parties trying to reclaim their heritage,” Donisthorpe said. Democrats will be trying to get the District 36 seat back that former state Sen. Mary Jane Garcia held from 1988 until 2012, when she was defeated by Republican Lee Cotter. Cotter, unopposed in this year’s GOP primary, will face the winner of the June 7 Democratic primary between current state Rep. Jeff Steinborn and former county commissioner Oscar Vasquez Butler.
Democrats “may possibly get back” Cotter’s seat, Papen said.
“That seat is in play,” she said, adding that it’s “a very tricky race” because all the candidates “bring something.”
Republicans want back the District 37 seat they held for 20 years, until 2008, when four-term incumbent Leonard Lee Rawson was defeated by former state Sen. Steve Fischmann. Fischmann, a Democrat, retired after one term. Former Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education member Bill Soules, also a Democrat, won the seat in 2008, defeating Republican Cathey Jo Alberson. This time around, Soules’ Republican opponent is City Councillor Ceil Levatino.
“I think this is going to be a very tough race,” Papen said. “Ceil knows the district. She’s worked the district.” Soules, Papen said, “was a very effective teacher. I think he’s a very thoughtful legislator.”
Keene said Republicans are “very excited about our chances” in the Soules-Levatino race, and are “very optimistic” about Cotter’s chances for re-election.
In the House and Senate races, “the big difference between 2014 and 2016 is that a presidential election brings more Democrats and Independents out to vote, thereby making the Republicans’ job more difficult,” Donisthorpe said.
“The presidential year is going to bring out a lot of new voters,” Keene said. The New Mexico primary “is going to be very important this year,” he said. In other states’ primaries, “voter turnout on the Republican side has been through the roof,” Keene said.