After Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and Democrats failed to take control of the Senate, many saw 2016 as a disastrous election for Democrats. At least nationwide.
But in New Mexico the party retook control the state House of Representatives and expanded their majority in the Senate.
Statewide, Clinton defeated Trump by 8 percent, even though over 9 percent of voters backed Libertarian nominee and former Gov. Gary Johnson.
While the election took place ten months ago and may seem like old news, the results can provide a glimpse into which races will be competitive in 2018.
University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson says that Trump will be a big issue for voters in the 2018 elections. “Off-year elections are referendums, at least in part, on the president,” she told NM Political Report in an interview. A president’s party typically does not do well in the midterm elections.
In New Mexico, voters will decide on statewide races, including those for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state land commissioner. In addition, all the state House of Representatives seats will be up for election.
In New Mexico the congressional races may not be as interesting in past years, at least in the general elections.
Each of the incumbents received over 60 percent of the vote in 2016.
There will be two open Congressional seats. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham already announced she won’t seek reelection to the 1st Congressional District seat and will instead run for governor.* Republican Steve Pearce, who currently represents the 2nd Congressional District, announced the same decision last month. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat, will seek reelection, for his sixth term in office.
So far, a large group of Democrats is seeking to replace Lujan Grisham, while a smaller but still sizable group of Republicans want to replace Pearce.
Pearce won reelection to the 2nd Congressional District by 25 percent in 2016, making it an unlikely pickup opportunity for Democrats, and Lujan Grisham won by an even wider margin in the 1st Congressional District.
State senate seats are not up for election again until 2020, but the House and gubernatorial elections will have a dramatic impact on New Mexico. Democrats are likely to maintain control of the state House and the majority in the Senate. The balance of power, between parties and between the governor and legislators, has broad impacts on the state. That has been clear during the last seven years as there have been vocal, at times bitter, divides on partisan lines between the Democrats in control of the House and Senate (Republicans held the state House from 2015 through 2016) and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Those battles play out both in back rooms and headlines, but budget decisions can affect everything from education to how much the state spends repairing roads.
There are several House of Representatives races where Republicans narrowly won in 2016 or Clinton outperformed Trump. In a “wave” election, as 2018 could prove to be, these races could shift to Democratic candidates.
Still, Atkeson doesn’t expect big changes at the Roundhouse.
“It’s hard to imagine the Democrats really expanding their legislative majority in an off-year or midterm election,” Atkeson said. “Obviously a lot depends on turnout and what happens at the top of the ticket.”
There also just aren’t that many seats that Democrats could take from Republicans this year after their gains in 2016.
The progressive website Daily Kos compiled election results by New Mexico legislative district in the presidential races in 2016 and 2012, as well as non-judicial statewide races between 2012 and 2016 except for the 2016 Secretary of State race.
All 34 districts where Clinton defeated the combined votes of Trump and Johnson are currently held by Democrats.
Republican legislators hold seats in only nine districts where Clinton outperformed Trump.
The Johnson effect on New Mexico complicates things. Four Democrats won in districts where the combined Trump and Johnson votes outstripped Clinton (Daymon Ely in HD 23, Elizabeth Thomson in HD 24, Candie Sweetser in HD 32 and George Dodge Jr. in HD 63). In two of those districts (HD 23 and HD24), Clinton outstriped Trump, while in the other two Trump had more votes than Clinton.
If 2018 were to turn into a good year for Republicans in New Mexico these are the types of districts that would be in play.
On the other hand, if 2018 is a bad year for the president’s party, some races where Clinton beat Trump and narrowly lost to the combined Trump/Johnson vote could become competitive in play.
Three races to watch
Rep. Rick Little of Chaparral is the lone Republican legislator standing in Doña Ana County. He narrowly defeated Democrat Willie Madrid by just 138 votes in 2016 after winning his previous two elections by wider margins.
Trump won the district, but only narrowly, while in 2012 Barack Obama won by just 15 votes over Republican Mitt Romney. Martin Heinrich also won the district in 2012, but all other statewide races in the district swung for Republicans. That included a near-30 percentage point win by Martinez over Democrat Gary King.
House Minority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque won by 4.38 percent over Democrat Natalie Figueroa after an 8.68 percent win in 2014 and 7.82 percent in 2012. Clinton had more votes than Trump in his district, but a large Johnson vote there kept Clinton from a majority of the votes.
In general, the seat is close in statewide races. Republicans Martinez and Commissioner of State Lands Aubrey Dunn won the district among statewide races—but Heinrich won the district in 2012 by just 12 votes.
Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, also of Albuquerque, also represents a district where Clinton easily outstripped Trump (by nearly 10 percentage points) but a stronger-than-average performance by Johnson meant that Trump/Johnson combined beat Clinton by 1.72 percentage points.
Maestas Barnes herself won reelection in 2016 over Democrat Ane Romero by 6.44 percent after defeating then-incumbent Emily Kane by 3.84 percent in 2014.
* NM Political Report is not covering the 1st Congressional District race. See why.