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Gov hopes for gains in legislative races

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By Barry Massey
The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Democrats have controlled the New Mexico Legislature for decades, but Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is waging an unusually aggressive and costly battle to change that in the general election to overcome Democratic opposition to her legislative proposals.

Using a barrage of hard-hitting mailings and advertisements, the first-term governor and her political allies have targeted two dozen legislative races across the state. Those races involve Senate Democratic leaders who helped derail a Martinez proposal to stop New Mexico from granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The license issue has been a centerpiece of the governor’s legislative agenda since she took office last year. Her proposal passed the House with some Democratic support, but failed in the Senate.

This year’s legislative races are playing out in a more expensive political landscape because of federal court cases loosening campaign finance restrictions. Certain groups can spend unlimited money on races, while individual candidates remain subject to contribution limits. It’s triggered the political equivalent of an arms race — with political committees for and against Martinez raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence legislative races that previously cost a fraction of that amount.

No recent New Mexico governor has pushed as hard as Martinez to influence the outcome of so many legislative races. Her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, at times flexed his political muscle in primary elections to try to ensure the election of Democrats loyal to his agenda, but he never tried to oust large numbers of GOP legislators to beef up the Democratic majority.

Democrats hold a 28-14 advantage in the Senate but cling to a narrow 36-33 majority in the House, which also has one independent.

Republicans hope to pick up seats in both chambers but the grand prize in the election would be gaining a majority in the House — something the GOP last held in the 1953-1954 Legislature.

One of the Democrats under siege is Senate President Tim Jennings of Roswell, the second longest serving senator. No other Democrat in the Legislature represents such a solidly GOP-leaning district.

When early voting kicked off this month, Martinez traveled to Roswell to rally Republicans and campaign for Jennings’ challenger, 26-year-old farmer Cliff Pirtle.

The governor was trying to “put the nail in the coffin,” said Jennings, who had raised about $203,000 for his campaign as of earlier this month.

“It’s been tough because I don’t know if I’ve ever raised this much money before in all my elections,” said Jennings, a rancher who’s served in the Senate since 1979.

Pirtle has raised about $36,000. However, his campaign is benefiting from an outside group with ties to the governor.

Reform New Mexico Now, a political action committee established by Martinez supporters and operated by the governor’s political strategist, Jay McCleskey, has flooded Jennings’ district with hard-hitting mailers, including some that highlight the incumbent’s opposition to the governor’s driver’s license proposal.

One mailer also attempted to link Jennings to former Senate Democratic leader Manny Aragon, who’s described as “the poster child for Santa Fe’s culture of corruption.”

The mailing criticized Jennings for writing a testimonial letter in 2009 on behalf of Aragon, who was awaiting sentencing in a public corruption case. Aragon pleaded guilty to felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud for his role in a scheme to defraud the state in the construction of an Albuquerque courthouse.

Along with Jennings, Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan also wrote a letter asking the judge to be lenient in sentencing Aragon.

Pro-Martinez forces also have aired a TV ad blistering Jennings and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, for voting against a measure in 2005 that increased the penalty to life imprisonment for someone who kills a child because of intentional abuse. Martinez advocated the proposal when she was a prosecutor in southern New Mexico.

Reform New Mexico Now has raised about $650,000 as of Oct. 1 but can’t coordinate its political plans and spending with candidates. Not to be outgunned, Democrats formed a political group that’s raised about $780,000, mostly from labor unions. Mailings by Patriot Majority New Mexico target GOP candidates, in some instances suggesting that they’ll oppose state aid for public school and college.