October 8, 2020

Candidates talk about importance of abortion in state senate races

While reproductive rights activists worry about the future of abortion rights in the state, some candidates say voters are particularly focused on the issue.

With the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18 and President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the high court, reproductive rights advocates’ efforts to repeal New Mexico’s 1969 law is now of even greater urgency for many.

If the court overturns Roe v. Wade, New Mexico’s 1969 law, which criminalizes abortion, would again go into effect.

Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat running for State Senate District 28 in southern New Mexico, said she has received several phone calls and emails from constituents in her district in recent weeks asking about her position on abortion rights.

“I know it’s on the mind of many people. Men and women have reached out to me wanting to know where I stand on removing the old abortion ban in New Mexico,” Correa Hemphill told New Mexico Political Report. Correa Hemphill said she is for a woman’s right to make abortion decisions privately with her healthcare provider.

But the issue does not seem to be on Republican voters’ minds as much, according to various Republican candidates who spoke with New Mexico Political Report. Many Democratic candidates said they were hearing other worries from voters as well.

Correa Hemphill’s Republican opponent, James “Jimbo” Williams, said that while abortion is “definitely a topic,” it is not more so of an issue for local voters than it was before Ginsburg passed away on Sept. 18. Williams is opposed to later gestational abortion and said that when women are facing unintended pregnancy, they “deserve to know all the options available to them,” including adoption and social services.

“I don’t think (abortion is a topic for voters) any more so than it was before,” Williams told New Mexico Political Report.  

But for Planned Parenthood, keeping abortion legal in New Mexico is crucial. Leaders at the organization told New Mexico Political Report in February that the state could provide an “oasis” for legal abortion in the coming years.

Related: With a health care crisis under way, New Mexico could be critical for abortion access

Sarah Taylor-Nanista, executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain Action Fund, said the recent events taking place at the national level are increasing the level of concern.

“We’ve been looking to New Mexico and that abortion ban in a really urgent light for a while now, but yes, it raises the stakes,” she said.

An attempt to repeal the law failed in the 2019 legislative session. The 1969 law, if it should go into effect, would mean that women would have to go before a special hospital committee to request an abortion in the event her life is at stake, or if she has been the victim of rape or incest. The hospital would have the right to deny the abortion even if the special committee approved it.

Abortion rights experts have said that this isn’t the way medicine is still practiced.

Related: New Mexico’s 1969 abortion law was one in a long line of laws restricting access

Taylor-Nanista said that though she said last spring that reproductive rights advocates need only two additional state senators to vote to repeal the 1969 law, she said that advocates really need at least three but four to be comfortable. 

For Democrat Martin Hickey, a Democrat running in the Albuquerque-area Senate District 20, the issue has not come up much, he said.

But, as a former physician, Hickey said the issue is important to him because his colleagues could “end up in jail under the current law…if they prescribe the morning after pill,” he said.

“I very clearly want to overturn the 1969 law,” he said.

The morning after pill is an emergency contraception that women can use to prevent pregnancy if they had unprotected sex or if the contraception they were using failed.

But, Hickey said that “just a handful of voters have spoken about it.” He said his supporters are phone banking about 30 percent independents.

“It’s a swing district. Within that group, it rarely comes up,” he said.

Hickey’s opponent, Republican John Morton, said he would call back for an interview but did not by press time. Incumbent Republican William Payne did not file for reelection in 2020.

Both Democrats and one Republican running for open seats in senate districts 38 and 35 said they aren’t hearing voters talk about abortion more since the death of Ginsburg and that other concerns are more pressing.

But both Carrie Hamblen, running as a Democrat for State Senate District 38 in Las Cruces and Neomi Martinez-Parra, also a Democrat running for the sprawling State Senate District 35 which spans from the bootheel to Sierra County, both said they are very concerned as they watch what’s happening at the Supreme Court. Republican Crystal Diamond, who is running against Martinez-Parra, also said she is watching the Supreme Court nomination process with interest. But she has also found that voters she is talking to are not as interested.

“I bring it up because I am very interested in what’s happening at the national level,” Diamond said. “But no, most people are not connecting at the local level.”

Republican Charles Wendler, who is running against Hamblen for Senate district 38, did not return multiple phone calls.

Democrat Pam Cordova, running for the rural Senate District 30 that stretches from the Arizona border to Valencia County, said she’s heard voters express a concern that if Roe v. Wade is overturned by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court bench, the 1969 law would go into effect.

“They want to see the 1969 law repealed and they do fear that the Supreme Court is heavily to the right. People do not want to go backwards,” Cordova said.

Republican Joshua Sanchez, who is running against Cordova, did not return repeated phone calls.

But University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson said progressive Democrats will “come out for Democrats,” but conservative Democrats might not with abortion as a major political issue in the race.

“’We have this old law on the books and we have to change it because the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade; we have to fix this. I don’t think that is a mobilizing strategy in New Mexico,” Atkeson said.

Atkeson said the five state senate races where progressive Democrats won in the primary, unseating a more conservative Democrat, could turn into Republican seats in the general election.

“The question is, are those Democratic seats? We’ll find out,” Atkeson said.

Libertarian candidate Lee Wienland and Republican candidate Diamantina Storment, both of whom are running for the open seat in Senate District 5 which includes Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, said they are not hearing more about abortion as an issue in their campaigns in recent weeks. Wienland said he is personally against abortion but “has issues” with the federal government making that decision for women. Storment is against abortion rights.

Democrat Leo Jaramillo, who is also running for Senate District 5, did not return multiple calls.

But in the race for state Senate District 10 in Albuquerque, Democrat Katy Duhigg and Republican Candace Gould had different perspectives.

Gould, the incumbent, said she is not hearing abortion as a major issue for voters right now. Gould told the Albuquerque Journal she is opposed to repealing the 1969 abortion law.

“I know it (abortion) has been in the past, but I think a lot of other things are taking its place at this point.” She said the issue is important but “it’s not what they bring up.”

Duhigg, who wants to repeal the 1969 law, said she thought she’d hear about abortion rights more from voters “given everything going on.”  

But, Duhigg said, her campaign has focused more on calling independents and Decline to State voters in recent weeks. She said abortion rights comes up about one out of every five calls and that has not changed since Ginsburg’s death.

“If we were calling Democrats right now, it might come up more,” Duhigg said. “For some folks it’s more of a concern now. Certainly it’s a concern for me.”

Democrat Harold Pope, Jr., running for state Senate District 23, did not return multiple messages. Incumbent and Republican Sander Rue, running to keep state Senate District 23, said he would not talk to New Mexico Political Report.