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Tuesday’s primary loss ousted Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, after 32 years in the Legislature.

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.”

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Reporter

Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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(5) comments

Robert Bartlett

The New Mexico budget is broken and will remain so until small business can recover. This will take years. So, no leftist boondoggles for you New Mexico. Grisham's moment of power is over, now comes the reckoning.

Emilie De A

What's remarkable is that most of the successful new Senators are women. NM continues to lead the country in Democratic women running and winning, thanks in part to a stunningly successful Emerge program in our state. Their organization and collaboration to help one another succeed as newcomers in the candidacy process empowers them to run so effectively. And they reflect the actual voices of their constituents.

Peter Romero

New Mexico will still be at the bottom of the good list and the top of the bad list.

John Cook

You are, unfortunately, right that New Mexico will face challenges even with better government.

However, we have hope for the future. As our scientists develop superconducting energy transmission, we will be able to sell our sunlight and wind to big cities everywhere. This can transform New Mexico from a poor state to a much less poor one! Of course, we should move now toward clean energy and these Senate results will vastly help that.

Jim Clark

The GOP have for 50 years liked to say the Democrats have been in charge. What wasn’t said was that the Senate was dictated by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans. In 2021 the Governor and the legislature have a chance to take bold progressive action to end corruption, legalize cannibis, give us a state bank, M4A, reverse the archaic abortion law, invest in renewable energy, etc. etc.

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