Sunday, August 11, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: There's No Stoppin' Party-Hoppers from Hoppin'

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Aug. 11, 2013

Nuñez changing party registration in 2011
It was a jolt of déja vu. Last Tuesday was the second time in two years that I rushed over to the Secretary of State’s Office to see Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch change political parties.

In 2011, Nuñez -- after a public spat with then House Speaker Ben Lujan--  changed his party to “Declined to State,” the official term for independent. But even though many pundits have talked about the declining strength of political parties, the fact is, facing an election without a party to back you up isn’t easy.

Seeking re-election last year, Nuñez came in third, a distant third behind the Democratic and Republican candidates. So, in hopes 0f having a better chance of beating incumbent Democrat Rep. Phillip Archuleta next year, Nuñez changed again, this time to Republican.

But will the party-hopping itself hurt Nuñez? A look at other party-hoppers in New Mexico shows that in most cases, the registration changes didn’t help.

To be sure, there have some politicians here who have done well after switching parties. Look at former state Rep. Max Coll. He served in the House as a Republican from Roswell in the 1960s and early ’70s. After moving to Santa Fe in the 1970s, he won a House seat here — as a Republican. However, after his 1982 re-election, Coll announced he was becoming a Democrat. The move — which effectively ended the rule of the “Cowboy Coalition” of Republicans and conservative Democrats in the House — was controversial at first. But it didn’t hurt Coll’s re-election efforts over the following 20 years.

There are others, such as state Sen. Phil Griego, who was a Republican when he was elected to the Santa Fe City Council in the mid-1980s. Not long after, he became a Democrat.
And going way back, there was our fourth governor, Octaviano Larrazolo, who in 1928 became the first Hispanic elected to the U.S. Senate. Larrazolo began his political career as a Democrat, but switched to GOP in 1911 because the Democratic Party refused his proposal that one-half of all statewide nominees be Hispanic.

These are the exceptions.

Just last year, several party-hoppers lost political races. Former state Sen. Shannon Robinson of Albuquerque switched from D to R and tried unsuccessfully to win back his old seat from Sen. Tim Keller. Meanwhile, former state Sen. Joe Carraro, who’d switched from Republican to independent in 2008, came up short in his race against Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque.

Also, former Albuquerque City Councilor Vickie Perea, a Democrat until 2004, lost the general election as the Republican candidate for a Cibola County state Senate seat to Democrat Clemente Sanchez of Grants. And former Albuquerque City Councilor Hess Yntema, who had served as a Republican but later switched to independent, lost the general election to incumbent Rep. Sheryl Stapleton Williams, D-Albuquerque.

Last year’s most prominent party-hopper was former Gov. Gary Johnson, who left the Republican Party to run for president as a Libertarian. He didn’t win.
Then-Republican Joe Carraro, former Democrat David Pfeffer
and Allen McCulloch at a 2006 GOP Senate forum

Going back a few years, state Republicans were grateful in 2005 to then-Santa Fe City Council David Pfeffer when he joined their side and publicly denounced his former party, the Democrats, in 2005. But they weren’t grateful enough the next year, when Pfeffer ran in the GOP for a U.S. Senate seat. He came in last in the three-man race.

And let’s not forget former state Sen. Tom Benavides of Albuquerque, who left the Democratic Party after his re-election defeat in 1996. In later years, Benavides ran unsuccessful races for U.S. Senate as an independent and a Republican.

And there was former Santa Fe Sheriff Eddie Escudero, who was elected sheriff as a Democrat in the late 1970s. In the ’80s and ’90s, Escudero ran unsuccessfully several times for county office as a Republican and later as a prodigal Democrat.

Does any of this portend anything for Nuñez’s race next year? Maybe not. But as these examples show, party-hopping usually doesn’t help.

The ones that got away: After I filed this column for Sunday's New Mexican, a fellow journalist reminded me of a couple of major New Mexico party-hopper I'd left out.

One was former Sen. Les Houston of Albuquerque. He began his political career as a Democrat, but in the early '80s, after losing a gubernatorial primary to Toney Anaya, Houston switched to Republican. Houston as a Republican was re-elected three more times to his Senate seat. He eventually became Senate GOP floor leader and even served briefly as Senate president pro-tem in the late '80s.

I discovered this interesting little tidbit in The New Mexican's The Past 100 Years column, published a few years ago:

Oct. 12, 1985: For a little more than nine hours Friday, Sen. Les Houston, president pro-tem of the state Senate, was governor of New Mexico. As soon as Houston found out that he was in charge, he was quick to take the reins of government -- he called a press conference at the governor's office. Houston ran for governor as a Democrat in 1982 and was defeated by Anaya in the primary election. As president pro-tem, Houston is third in line to fill in for Governor Toney Anaya, who was giving a speech in Chicago at the Midwest Hispanic Voters' conference. Next in line, Lt. Gov. Michael Runnels, is in the Soviet Union on vacation, and second in line, Secretary of State Clara Jones, was in Keystone, Colo. This was the second time in 15 months the Senate president pro-tem has served as acting governor.
Houston made another stab at running for governor in 1990 -- this time as a Republican -- but he lost the GOP primary to former state Rep. Frank Bond of Santa Fe. After his Senate career, Houston was elected as a Republican to the Bernalillo County Commission in the 1990s.

But in 2002 he angered many members of the state GOP when he publicly endorsed Democrat Bill Richardson for governor.

The other party-switcher my friend reminded me of was the late Anderson Carter, a former state representative from Roosevelt County. He was elected as a Democrat but became a Republican in the early 1960s. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1966. but lost to Democratic incumbent Clinton P. Anderson.   And, in 1970 Carter defeated the late David Cargo, then a sitting governor, in the U.S. Senate primary. Cater went on to lose to incumbent Sen. Joe Montoya in the general election.

Also I should have re-read my 2011 article about Nuñez's switch, because in that, Secretary of State Dianna Duran mentioned other party hoppers, including former Rep. Larry Sheffield, who went from Democrat to Republican and former Rep. Bill Vandergriff, who went from Republican to Democrat in the '80s; and former Rep. Patricia Baca switched from Republican to Democrat in 1992.

I've probably left out even more N.M. party-hoppers feel free to add others to the comments section.