NM-1: New Vacancy

By Jim Ellis

Dec. 21, 2020 — Late last week, President-Elect Joe Biden announced that he is nominating New Mexico US Rep. Deb Haaland (D-Albuquerque) to be Interior Secretary. Upon confirmation, Rep. Haaland will resign her seat in the House, which will become the body’s third vacancy.

Biden has already chosen Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to run the White House Office of Public Engagement and become Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, respectively.

Special elections will be held in all three districts and scheduled once the member officially resigns to accept his or her new position. Democrats will be prohibitive favorites in Louisiana and Ohio, but it’s possible the New Mexico seat could become competitive.

Haaland was first elected to what was an open district in 2018 when then-Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) risked the 1st District House seat to wage an ultimately successful campaign for Governor. Grisham was first elected to the House in 2012 in an open seat campaign. She succeeded then-Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), who won a Senate seat in the same election.

Prior to Heinrich’s initial House win in 2008, the 1st District congressional seat, anchored in Albuquerque, had been in Republican hands for 40 consecutive years in the person of Reps. Manuel Lujan, Steve Schiff, and Heather Wilson, consecutively. Though the district has significantly changed politically, it has largely kept its same basic geographic context during the entire aforementioned stretch. Prior to the 1968 election, New Mexico’s representatives were chosen in at-large elections.

Once Haaland, one of the first Native American females to be elected to the House, resigns, Gov. Grisham will schedule a special election. Under New Mexico procedure, the political parties will caucus to choose their nominees, so there will be no primary election. Therefore, it is probable to see a contested convention process for both parties, particularly for the Democrats since their eventual nominee will begin the special election campaign in the favorite’s position.

Since the district switch to Democratic representation in 2008, the seat has consistently performed for the party. The average win percentage since Heinrich’s initial election has been 58.2 percent over seven elections. Only one time — that for Grisham in 2016 — did the winner crack the 60 percent threshold (65.1 percent), however.

Republicans have not targeted the 1st District in the recent past elections. Though Haaland won only in the high 50 percentile in both of her elections, the respective Republican nominees failed to spend even $400,000 and attracted no outside party or independent support. That situation could change in a special election, particularly if the GOP recruits a strong candidate, which is possible.

With Democrats dominating the Albuquerque delegation in the state legislature along with holding a strong majority on the locality’s City Council and the mayor’s office in the person of incumbent Tim Keller who was first elected in 2017 and must stand for a second term next year, the party can expect plenty of interest from their local politicos for the special nominating convention.

The Republicans do have at least two credible alternatives, if either would be interested in running for the House. Richard Berry is the former Albuquerque mayor who served two terms ending in 2017. The local term limits law barred him from seeking a third term.

Also, 2020 Republican US Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti, a former television weatherman in the local market, ran a much more competitive campaign than expected in a non-targeted race, losing to Senator-Elect Ben Ray Lujan (D), 51.7 – 45.6 percent, statewide. If either of these men were to decide to enter the race and win the special Republican nominating convention, we can expect a competitive special general.

Centered in Albuquerque, the 1st District occupies 95 percent of the state’s dominant Bernalillo County and touches small segments of Sandoval, Santa Fe, Torrance, and Valencia Counties. From a population standpoint, the Citizen Voting Age population is 48.3 percent Non-Hispanic White, 41.9 percent Hispanic, 3.9 percent Native American, 2.5 percent Black, and 1.9 percent Asian. For Republicans to become competitive in a special election, they will obviously have to improve their standing in the Hispanic community.

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