Dems gain control in House, lose ground in Senate

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New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and her Republican allies lost ground in the state House of Representatives in the general election, but gained seats in the Senate, including ousting a pair of Democratic leaders.

The GOP waged a fierce legislative campaign battle in hopes of knocking off enough Democrats to take control of the House for the first time in nearly 60 years, but unofficial returns suggested the party went the other direction and lost seats.

Although several races remained tight and the outcomes uncertain, Democrats expect to see a net gain of three seats for a possible 39-31 majority. House Democrats currently hold a slim 36-33 edge and there’s one independent.

One of the races where Democrats picked up a seat was in District 43, where challenger Stephanie Garcia Richard knocked off Jim Hall by 309 votes out of more than 13,000 votes cast.

Hall carried Los Alamos by 770 votes, but Garcia Richard won the Santa Fe precincts, gaining 1,000 votes out of 1,200 cast and she won in Sandoval County by 400 votes. Hall carried Rio Arriba County by 36 votes.

“As we look to the future, I’d also like to recognize and thank Representative Hall for his service over the past year,” Garcia Richard said.

“New Mexicans have rejected the politics of personal destruction and instead have chosen the Democratic agenda of strengthening our working families,” House Majority Leader Democrat Ken Martinez, Grants, said Wednesday in a statement.

In the Senate, the GOP picked up at least three seats but Democrats retain a majority — likely 25-17, although one race with a Democratic incumbent remained close and the outcome wasn’t certain in a couple of other races.

Jay McCleskey, the governor’s political adviser who ran a political action committee that targeted two dozen legislative races, expressed disappointment with the loss of several GOP House incumbents in tight races but pointed out that two GOP women — one Native American and one Hispanic — won previously Democratic seats.

“In a tough night for Republicans nationally and at the top of the ticket in New Mexico, we are pleased that we were able to win three seats in the state Senate, including defeating two of the three Democratic Senate leaders,” McCleskey said.

New Mexico went with Democrat Barack Obama in the presidential race and Democrat Martin Heinrich for the U.S. Senate, but Republicans unseated the state Senate’s top leader, President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell, and the No. 3 Democratic leader, Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia of Doña Ana.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, survived a costly effort by pro-Martinez forces to make a clean sweep of the top Democratic leadership. Sanchez, who has served in the Senate since 1993, handily defeated Republican David Chavez, a Los Lunas lawyer who gave up a House seat to run for the Senate.

Jennings lost to a young Roswell farmer, Cliff Pirtle, who had never before held elective office.

GOP and Democratic-leaning political action committees poured more than $3 million into the general election campaign, an unprecedented amount for legislative races in New Mexico. And they spent a lot of that money in the District 43 race.