In the murky world of New Mexico politics, a few things are clear.
State Sen. Mark Moores is the largest legislator. He stands 6-feet-7 and carries the bulk of an offensive lineman, which he was 30 years ago at the University of New Mexico.
Moores, R-Albuquerque, is as conscientious as they come. He prepares for every committee hearing like it’s a final exam.
But as of this week, Moores looks like the biggest underdog in the Legislature.
Odds are good that his high-profile bill for election reform will fail. That means voters in and around Albuquerque wouldn’t get to decide which candidates make the ballot to fill a congressional vacancy.
The seat in question is the 1st Congressional District. Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland is the incumbent, but her 25-month career in Congress appears to be winding to a close.
President Joe Biden has nominated Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior. If she’s confirmed by the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate, Haaland would resign from her congressional seat.
A dozen potential candidates to succeed her already are raising money, holding public forums and trying to line up support from members of the Republican or Democratic state central committees.
Under existing state law, several dozen central committee members would nominate a Republican and a Democrat to replace Haaland. Those candidates would go on to compete in a special election.
Moores objects to the system, even though he’s a Republican Central Committee member who would have a voice in the nominating process.
He says voters should choose the nominees in a special primary election.
Moores’ Senate Bill 254 calls for the change to be instituted as soon as the measure is signed into law.
His bill is in trouble. It survived its first committee hearing on a bipartisan 6-5 vote, but that’s nowhere close to the dominant support it has to have.
Moores and his co-sponsor, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, need two-thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives to immediately change the law on filling a congressional vacancy.
Otherwise, their bill still might be approved and signed by the governor, but it wouldn’t go into effect in time for this special election.
The insider system would remain intact. About 300 central committee members would choose the Democratic and Republican congressional nominees.
That number seems even more puny when compared to a special primary election, which would draw some 130,000 voters.
Five Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee voted against Moores’ bill. It was a clear sign the measure is unlikely to get two-thirds support if it reaches the full 42-member Senate.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, is one of those who opposed the reform bill. He said central committee members deciding on congressional nominees is a representative system that works just fine.
“If any of the candidates don’t get the nomination when the central committee decides now, they have only to wait one year and they can run in the primary election of 2022 and make their case then,” Ortiz y Pino said.
He discounts the awesome power of incumbency. Whoever wins the special election to succeed Haaland would have an enormous advantage in 2022.
Ortiz y Pino also failed to address how the coronavirus pandemic figures into state politics. Those scrambling to feed a family aren’t likely to be elected to a central committee.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, also voted against the reform bill. Wirth’s stand could sway other Democratic senators.
In the face of such powerful opposition, Moores remains optimistic his bill can pass with wide support.
He said he spoke with the secretary of state about how to solve technical issues to make it easier to pull off two special elections, a primary and a general. In turn, Moores said, some senators who voted against the bill might become supporters.
“After the hearing, I felt the agreement was this is the right thing to do. The question now is how to do it,” Moores said. “Tilt after enough windmills, Sancho, and eventually you slay one.”
Like Moores, Ely isn’t giving up.
“Would I be betting on my bill? No,” Ely admitted. “But we’re talking about a basic principle. It’s more important that people vote than have small committees pick the candidates.”
A legislative staff member who analyzed the bill stated that adding a primary election would cost $3 million. The special general election would run another $3 million.
The alternative of letting party insiders pick the candidates is cheaper, easier and faster.
It also denies the ballot to tens of thousands of people. That’s the price of treating a congressional election like a yard sale.