SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Democrats have expanded their control of the New Mexico Legislature, teeing up a progressive agenda that aims to broadly legalize marijuana, expand funding for universal prekindergarten programs and possibly enshrine abortion rights into state law.
While Republicans had hoped to pick up more seats, they managed to fend off the kind of trouncing that could have made the progressive wish list inevitable.
In federal races, Republican Yvette Herrell defeated U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in the conservative 2nd District, and Democrat Joe Biden won the state’s five electoral votes.
Three Senate races and five House races were still undecided. County election boards on Wednesday were wrapping up counts of a few thousand outstanding absentee and provisional ballots.
The mixed results - with voter participation that shattered records - “show that New Mexico is not blue. It is clearly a purple state,” said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
Democrats successfully defended legislative majorities in the state House and Senate, and women expanded their political representation in both chambers. New Mexico also elected an all-female delegation to the U.S. House.
Democratic attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez won the seat in the 3rd Congressional District, succeeding Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who was elected to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall. Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland easily won a second term in her Albuquerque-based district.
House Speaker Brian Egolf said women are expected to hold a majority of seats in the state House for the first time.
Meanwhile, he said a proposal is forthcoming to create a state civil rights act to give New Mexico courts a larger role in disputes about free speech, gun rights and more as federal courts have become increasingly conservative.
“There was so much more on the ballot in New Mexico and legislative races besides just the candidates,” Egolf said. “Who do New Mexicans trust when it comes to making health care more affordable, making education more accessible, especially at a time of pandemic?”
A slate of progressive Democratic candidates for state Senate faced mixed results. Republican Crystal Diamond defeated Democrat Neomi Martinez-Parra for a seat held for decades by Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith. Martinez-Parra ousted Smith in the Democratic primary.
Republicans had hoped to reduce their deficit in the Senate, which has 42 seats. Overall, they lost at least one seat.
“Instead of 16, we’re down to 15 and (were) hoping to get to 18, but we didn’t do it,” said GOP Sen. Stuart Ingle, who represents southeastern New Mexico between Roswell and Clovis.
Several progressive Democrats won first terms, including Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces, whose primary nomination in June knocked out Democratic Senate President Mary Kay Papen, an opponent of abortion and marijuana legalization.
“Despite some painful losses, last night was a huge victory for progressives and women in the Legislature,” said Eric Griego, state director of a progressive coalition group under the Working Families Party.
Democratic lawmakers allied with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are better positioned to push through initiatives to increase spending on early childhood education and possibly overturn the state’s 1969 abortion ban and legalize marijuana sales, University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said.
It’s one of several states with abortion bans that are not enforced because of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. If the federal decision were overturned, the state abortion law would take effect.
Several conservative Democrats and Republicans who voted last year to keep the state abortion ban won’t be back. It was unclear whether abortion rights advocates can muster a Senate vote to overturn the ban.
“The timing is probably ideal to try to push that stuff through now, especially recreational marijuana, because it can be framed that this as a means of generating economic revenue,” Sanchez said.
In Congress, Luján’s victory ends a 44-year hiatus from Hispanic leadership in New Mexico’s U.S. Senate delegation. The last was Democratic Sen. Joseph Montoya, who lost reelection in 1976.
Luján, a six-term congressman and son of a state House speaker, defeated Republican former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti and Libertarian scientist Bob Walsh.
Latinos have a long history of holding elected office in New Mexico under political traditions that date to Mexican and Spanish colonial rule in the region.
Lujan Grisham, a distant cousin to Luján by marriage, is the state’s third consecutive Hispanic governor, and her grandfather served on the state Supreme Court.
Latino voters were more likely to support Luján, while Ronchetti had an apparent advantage among white voters, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate. The survey reached 1,654 voters in New Mexico over an eight-day period ending Tuesday.
Biden’s victory, which came without a campaign visit to the state, extends a string of victories for Democratic presidential candidates in New Mexico. The last time a Republican won was George W. Bush in 2004.
In other results, a ballot measure was approved that will overhaul the Public Regulation Commission, which oversees electric utilities, pipeline safety and telecommunications. The panel will be made up of three members appointed by the governor instead of five elected commissioners.
Associated Press Susan Montoya Bryan contributed from Albuquerque.
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