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Top Democrat says district will be redrawn after GOP win

Associated Press logoAssociated Press 11/5/2020 By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press
FILE - In this March 14, 2019, file photo, New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, listens to reporters in his Santa Fe, N.M. office. One of the architects of the Democrats' progressive push in New Mexico has his sights on solidifying the party's power and transforming the only conservative-leaning congressional district in the state. Speaker Egolf said Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, after Republicans won the 2nd Congressional District that its boundaries will be redrawn as part of a redistricting process that will be guided by super majorities in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File) © Provided by Associated Press FILE - In this March 14, 2019, file photo, New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, listens to reporters in his Santa Fe, N.M. office. One of the architects of the Democrats' progressive push in New Mexico has his sights on solidifying the party's power and transforming the only conservative-leaning congressional district in the state. Speaker Egolf said Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, after Republicans won the 2nd Congressional District that its boundaries will be redrawn as part of a redistricting process that will be guided by super majorities in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A day after Republicans won back New Mexico's only conservative-leaning congressional district, a top state Democrat said its boundaries will be redrawn in redistricting that will be guided by super majorities in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, an architect of the state's progressive Democratic wing, made the announcement Wednesday after GOP nominee Yvette Herrell beat Democratic U.S. House Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in part because of a Republican turnout surge in the 2nd Congressional District.

A campaign sign for Republican U.S. House hopeful Yvette Herrell sits in front of the Wild West Ski Shop in Ruidoso, N.M., on Oct. 6, 2020. New Mexico is on the verge of electing the nation's largest all-female of color U.S. House delegation but the close race in the state's southern district, where Ruidoso sits, is grabbing the most attention. (AP Photo/ Russell Contreras) © Provided by Associated Press A campaign sign for Republican U.S. House hopeful Yvette Herrell sits in front of the Wild West Ski Shop in Ruidoso, N.M., on Oct. 6, 2020. New Mexico is on the verge of electing the nation's largest all-female of color U.S. House delegation but the close race in the state's southern district, where Ruidoso sits, is grabbing the most attention. (AP Photo/ Russell Contreras)

“So this is the last election for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District with a map that looks like it looks now," Egolf said. "So next time it’ll be a different district and we’ll have to see what that means for Republican chances to hold it.”

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce criticized the plan and suggested that Egolf should instead focus on New Mexico’s dismal educational outcomes, lack of jobs and economic opportunities, crime rates and other problems.

“All he can think about are political tricks to make sure his weak candidates can win a district where Republicans are already outnumbered,” Pearce said.

The sprawling district borders Mexico, stretches from remote western ranches to oil pump jacks near Texas and has been won by Democrats only twice in four decades. The Democratic incumbents failed both times to win reelection.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, but Herrell unseated Torres Small as Republicans cast ballots at far higher rates. In Lea County, about two-thirds of registered Republicans voted in Tuesday’s election. Fewer than half of Democrats did so.

The outcome put a wrinkle in the Democrats' sweep of other top ticket New Mexico races and the narrower margins of victory for those Democrats who were successful showed that the “blue wall” in northern New Mexico isn't a factor beyond the 2nd district's largest urban area in Dona Ana County.

Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, one of the state's most influential lawmakers, lives in the 2nd District. He was a target of the progressive movement in the primary and lost his reelection bid to Democrat Neomi Martinez-Parra.

On Tuesday, Republican Crystal Diamond defeated Martinez-Parra to take the seat for the GOP — something Smith said hasn't happened in 65 years.

“So that tells you what’s happening in the area,” he said.

Smith said Egolf likely has the political clout to push for transforming the district through redistricting.

The state's districts were drawn in 2012 by a state district court after former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a plan from a Democratic-led Legislature. The court’s goal was to minimize partisan leanings and keep intact communities with similar cultural, economic or geographic concerns.

But a Democratic governor is now in office, Democrats hold super majorities in the statehouse and Democrats dominate the state Supreme Court.

So that could create an opportunity for gerrymandering by the party in the upcoming round of redistricting — and political experts have said that when the executive and legislative branches are of the same party, there’s more temptation to pass a partisan plan.

And there’s little recourse in federal court to challenge plans that blatantly shape districts to help a certain political party.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business.

However, Justice Elena Kagan in a dissenting opinion quoted retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, saying partisan gerrymandering at its most extreme “amounts to ‘rigging elections.’”

Following Herrell's win, Egolf dismissed suggestions that Democrats are out of touch with rural residents.

House Republican Leader Jim Townsend said progressive Democrats spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the election cycle trying to oust moderate Democrats.

“We invite the speaker to meaningfully visit our southern New Mexico communities to learn why his party’s ever shifting progressive policies do not resonate with the hard working people of this congressional district,” Townsend said.

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Associated Press writer Morgan Lee in Santa Fe contributed to this report.

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