The Formidable Five are no longer.
The stunning defeat Tuesday of four of five conservative-leaning Democratic state senators targeted by a progressive coalition marks the end of an era within the state Capitol, and political observers say the ideological shift could be pronounced when the Legislature opens its 2021 session in January.
“This will definitely move the Democratic caucus to the left,” said longtime New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff.
Add the defeat of Sen. Richard Martinez — who voted against two key progressive bills this year — to the mix, and the conservative wing within the Democratic caucus in the state Senate is largely gone. It’s a fact not lost on some of those who helped create the transformation.
“If we’re all successful in the general election, the face of the New Mexico Senate will have been changed, and I believe we will be able to move New Mexico forward,” said Pam Cordova, a retired educator who defeated incumbent Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants by a wide margin Tuesday.
The results were remarkable, in part because of how influential the incumbents were and how long many of them have been in Santa Fe. The biggest icon to fall, Sen. John Arthur Smith, is a 32-year legislator who had long wielded significant power as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Smith was defeated by Neomi Martinez-Parra of Lordsburg.
But Smith wasn’t the only heavyweight to lose. Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, who lost to challenger Carrie Hamblen, also will leave the chamber when her term concludes later this year. Sen. Gabriel Ramos, who lost in his race to Siah Correa Hemphill, represented an important vote on key legislation in his brief time in the Legislature. Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, had served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee until he stepped down from that role after being convicted for aggravated drunken driving late last year. Sanchez is head of the Corporations and Transportation Committee.
Progressive advocates have for years criticized many in the Formidable Five for blocking high-profile legislation — including a bill to repeal the state’s old anti-abortion law, a bid to legalize recreational cannabis and efforts to tap more of the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education.
The victorious primary challengers favor these efforts — and in fact, many ran on them.
“I truly believe women should be given the right to make their own health care decisions with their health care provider and the government should step away,” said Leo Jaramillo, who defeated Martinez in Northern New Mexico’s District 5, adding he also supported using more of the land grant fund.
If the primary victors win in the November general election, it’s likely they’ll give such legislation a much easier path to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.
In fact, Lujan Grisham’s ability to win approval for her legislative initiatives in the last two sessions largely depended on winning support from the conservative Senate Democrats, so she might also have an easier time pushing through more progressive initiatives as well.
Sanderoff said the results were reflective of a national Democratic Party that has become more progressive, adding the challengers in these races had done an “impressive” job of campaigning.
“The progressives can’t be underestimated,” he said. “They run great campaigns.”
A group called No Corporate Democrats ran a campaign to support the candidates running against the five Democratic senators, accusing the incumbents of favoring corporations over rural residents and criticizing them for blocking key legislative initiatives.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, was the only one of the five to win his primary race, defeating Noreen Ann Kelly. He’s vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Although Doña Ana County was still counting absentee ballots Wednesday, Smith said he knew by Tuesday night he would lose to Martinez-Parra, a former state Democratic Party vice chairwoman and a longtime educator from Lordsburg.
“I’ve had a good run,” Smith said Wednesday of his time in the Legislature.
He said he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and wasn’t going to miss the long trips from his home in Deming to Santa Fe.
His perspective on his longtime role as gatekeeper of state finances changed, too.
“Last night, as I lay awake a little while, it dawned on me that what I was worrying about … was no longer my worry,” he said, referring to the state’s task of fixing a massive revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s somebody else’s worry.”
He added the freshmen senators would have their hands full to try to patch the budget gap once they arrived.
“It’s pretty easy for people that want to cast the stones and the rocks until they’re challenged with the charge of trying to fix things,” he said.
Perhaps more than any other incumbent Democrat, Smith has been the subject of constant ire of progressives for repeatedly blocking efforts to tap more of the land grant fund, even turning away Lujan Grisham’s efforts in 2019. He did spearhead an effort to create a new fund for early childhood education this year, although it calls for less money than progressives wanted.
Smith said he volunteered to step aside from his finance duties for the upcoming special legislative session, scheduled to begin later this month, but Senate leadership asked him to stay on.
Despite the primary wins, it may not be smooth sailing in November for all the primary winners, particularly for Martinez-Parra, said University of New Mexico professor Lonna Atkeson.
That’s because Martinez-Parra’s district in the southwestern part of the state leans conservative, and Smith’s supporters could end up voting Republican in November instead of backing a progressive candidate, she said.
“I think there’s a possibility that those voters get the idea that maybe those aren’t the right choices for them,” said Atkeson, director of UNM’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said he was “surprised” at the defeat of so many incumbent senators, saying he hadn’t seen such a dramatic change in the makeup of the Legislature from a primary election in his 15 years as a lawmaker.
“To see it play out the way it did is certainly not what was expected, but I respect the process,” said Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “The voters have indicated they want changes.”
Hamblen, who defeated Papen, said voters wanted fresh faces in the Senate, particularly ones who support repealing the anti-abortion law.
“I think it’s very obvious that people wanted a change,” she said Wednesday. “There are folks who are ready for new voices.”