A legislative race that’s expected to one of the top contests in the state this year began to take shape Thursday when Las Cruces City Councilor Ceil Levatino announced she will attempt to unseat State Sen. Bill Soules.
“The constituents of [Senate District 37] deserve someone who will listen to their concerns and serve their needs,” Levatino, a Republican, said in a news release announcing her candidacy. She spoke about her commitment to stopping tax increases and making New Mexico “more business-friendly.”
When he announced in October that he would seek re-election this year, Soules, a Democrat, mentioned “fighting for effective education reform, protecting our wildlife and wild lands, and standing by a woman’s right to direct her own health care decisions.” He didn’t immediately respond on Thursday to messages seeking comment about Levatino’s candidacy.
Republicans and Democrats expect the race for Senate District 37, which is located in Doña Ana County, to be hotly contested. Political registration in the district is fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Recent voting history in the district is nearly 50/50 between candidates from the two parties.
Both parties are likely to focus first on the battle for control of the N.M. House, which has been in GOP hands for the last two years after being controlled by Democrats for decades. Republicans hold a 37-33 majority in that chamber, which could swing either way.
Democrats hold a 24-18 edge in the Senate, and some analysts think control of that chamber might also be in play. That depends on a number of factors, including who emerges as the major parties’ candidates for president, which can dramatically affect turnout and down-ballot races.
If the N.M. Senate is in play, the District 37 race could be pivotal.
Levatino was first elected to the city council in 2013. Nothing would prohibit her from remaining on the city council if she’s also elected to the Senate. Asked on Facebook whether she plans to keep both seats if she unseats Soules, Levatino told NMPolitics.net it’s “way too early to make a decision on that.”
Levatino’s experience on the council helped push her into the Senate race.
“As a city councilwoman, I’ve witnessed firsthand the effect that higher taxes and burdensome state regulations have on business development,” Levatino said in her news release. “If we want more companies to relocate or expand into Southern New Mexico, we have to make sure we stay competitive with the business climate of other states.”
Levatino has worked as a nurse and, more recently, a realtor in Las Cruces.
Soules, who has served in the Senate since 2013, is a teacher in Las Cruces. He’s vice chair of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Conservation Committee. He’s getting attention in advance of the legislative session that starts Tuesday for proposing changes to the state’s law governing liquor licenses.
One vulnerable point for Soules could be his 2003 misdemeanor conviction for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act when he was a member of the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education.
Soules apologized for the violations in a 2013 column. He also pledged support for transparency laws.
Soules and Levatino could face primary challengers, so there’s no certainty they’ll battle each other in the November general election. March 8 is candidate filing day.