By David Arkin
Voters expecting to find plenty of choices for House and Senate seats on the upcoming June 1 primary and Nov. 2 general election may be in for a surprise — their choices are severely limited.
People just aren’t running for elected office this year.
There will be 29 House and 18 Senate contested races in the November election. And the figures for the primary election are even smaller. There are no races in the House primary that have two candidates from each party. There are four races in the Senate that have at least two candidates running in each party.
Those figures are slightly lower than the last Senate and House races, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Web site.
During the 2002 House race there were 33 contested races and in the 2000 Senate race there were 23 contested races.
Things don’t look much better in eastern New Mexico. This year, of the four area House seats, two are contested for the primary and one will be contested for the general election. During the last House election there was one area contested race for the primary and no contested races for the general election.
On the Senate side, one of the three eastern New Mexico seats will be contested during the primary and one during the general election. During the last Senate election, no seats were contested in the primary and one was contested in the general election.
Why is the number of contested races so low?
Everyone seems to have an answer.
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, who faces Will Palmer, R-Lovington, on June 1 for the Republican Party nod for District 42, said the amount of time and money that is invested has a lot to do with why people don’t jump into races.
“It’s hard to get people to run,” she said. “I have learned that serving takes a lot of time. If you are serious about serving you have to accept that you are going to have time away from your job and family.”
Kernan, who is a school teacher, said she thought the responsibility that campaigns carry can be overwhelming to some.
“It takes a lot of effort to run a campaign,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility for yourself and you want to do a good job. I think that when you have to run a campaign it certainly makes you work harder for your goal.”
Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, who won’t have any competition for his seat this year, said the amount of money that has to be spent makes some not consider a run for office.
“It’s a non-paid position,” he said. “That limits some folks. And it’s hard to get away from your business and family and then you take a financial hit on top of it. There are few that have their own business that can do that. If you represent a rural district like I do, it can be a financial mess.”
But the money isn’t the No. 1 reason why Moore thinks people aren’t running. He said redistricting is what has kept people away.
“What we’ve done with redistricting, not just in New Mexico, but across the country, is make it hard for certain parties to win and that makes people not want to run,” Moore said.
Moore said in the last Congressional election, of the more than 400 seats up for grabs in Congress, only seven of them were competitive.
A Democrat, Moore said, would have a difficult time winning in his district, because of the high percentage of Republican voters.
Moore said 60 percent of registered voters in his district are Democrats, but 63 percent of people who actually vote are Republicans.
“Whatever party is in power tries to keep their position of power,” he said. “They want to keep every district that they have. What we are doing with redistricting is creating status quo. It’s becoming hard to pick up seats on both sides. In my district a Democrat would have to look at the numbers and they would probably think to themselves that it would be tough to win.”
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who is seeking his sixth term in the Senate this year, said he too thinks that redistricting has made it difficult on those who want to challenge an incumbent.
“A lot of times a person is going to run for a district but because of redistricting they are no longer in that district anymore,” he said. “They were going to run because they were familiar with their territory, but now they aren’t.”
Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, who is seeking another term in the upcoming election, said he can see how redistricting has made things hard.
“Redistricting could have an effect on this,” he said. “If an incumbent from either party is running in a district that is predominantly of their party, you are probably going to see less contested races.”
But there are other issues that keep people from running.
Some wonder if certain candidates who have held office for numerous terms are untouchable.
“If I were to try to unseat Stuart Ingle, I would take a long, hard look at it; he has done one hell of a job,” Harden said.
While most agree beating someone like Ingle or Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, who is seeking her sixth term, is a daunting task, there are some like Kernan who believe anyone can be defeated.
“It’s not that people are untouchable,” she said. “People still have to run on their record.”
Ingle, who is recognized statewide as a mover and shaker in the political ranks, said he thinks any politician could lose their seat.
“If you do a good job people will keep returning you,” he said. “It’s up to the folks who are there. Certainly, I think anyone is vulnerable.”
But the fact remains that Ingle hasn’t had a lot of competition over the years. The last person to run against Ingle was in 1996. During that election, Ingle blew away Democrat Travis Foster by a 61-39 percent margin.
“The challengers recognize that it’s been hard to defeat someone who has been in office for many years,” said Curry County Clerk Mario Trujillo. “People who have been there a while know the ropes.”
But even if a lawmaker doesn’t have the reputation of someone like Ingle, many feel it’s hard to beat any incumbent.
“I think in general, incumbents are having an easier time,” Harden said. “In the past it’s been hard to unseat people. I would like to believe it’s confidence from voters from both parties, but historically, it’s just been hard to unseat incumbents.”
“It’s definitely harder to beat an incumbent,” Moore said.
While fewer people are running, races become easier for incumbents to win, but the lack of choices can become frustrating for voters.
“I think the (number of uncontested races) tends to be more negative than positive for the public,” Harden said. “A contested race gives politicians the opportunity to hear from their constituents.”
Moore agreed that not having choices makes decisions tough on voters, but for him the issue comes back to redistricting.
“We would be a lot better served as citizens if the legislative districts were more competitive,” he said.
But the fact that voters have little choice in candidates when they go to the polls is surprising to Moore.
“It actually surprises me a bit that we don’t have more candidates running,” he said. “I worked a bit to recruit candidates to run for those open seats.”
While Moore does wish more candidates would get in races, he certainly won’t be complaining that he has no competition this year for the post he holds.
“Things are a lot less stressful,” he said. “But I really do about as many things as I would if I were running, that’s part of being a successful legislator.”
• • •
Area contested races
House District 63 (De Baca, Curry, Guadalupe and Roosevelt counties)
• Incumbent Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa.
• Terry Martin, D-Clovis
• Russell Grider, R-Clovis
House District 66 (Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt counties)
• Incumbent Rep. Earlene Roberts, R-Lovington
• Keith Gardner, R-Roswell
Senate District 7 (Colfax, San Miguel, Quay and Union counties)
• Incumbent Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis
• Fred Sparks, D-Raton
• Robert Frost, D-San Jon
Senate District 42 (Curry, Lea and Roosevelt counties)
• Incumbent Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.
• Will Palmer, R-Lovington.
• • •
By the numbers
Here is a look at the number of people who have run in past House and Senate primaries and general elections in New Mexico.
2000 Senate race (All 42 Senate seats were up for grabs)
1: Races where voters had a choice of two candidates in both parties
19: Races where voters had a choice of at least two candidates in one party
23: Number of contested races
2002 House race (All 70 districts were up for grabs in 2002)
2: Races where voters had a choice of two candidates in both parties
19: Races where voters had a choice of at least two candidates in one party
33: Number of contested races
2004 House race (All 70 districts are up for grabs in 2002)
0: Races where voters will have a choice of two candidates in both parties
18: Races where voters will have a choice of at least two candidates in one party
29: Number of contested races
2004 Senate race (All 42 districts are up for grabs in 2004)
4: Races where voters will have a choice of two candidates in both parties
12: Races where voters will have a choice of at least two candidates in one party
18: Number of contested races