Democratic Primary Simmering in New Mexico: Candidates Waste No Time Lining Up to Succeed Udall

By Jim Ellis

March 29, 2019 — Sen. Tom Udall (D) surprised the political world on Monday when he released a video announcing that the will retire when this session of Congress adjourns instead of running for a third term. Though he appeared to be a lock for re-election, the 70-year-old senator said it was time for him to look for other political avenues from which to contribute.

Potential Democratic successors are wasting no time. Later today, state Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) is releasing a video message that will presumably contain his Senate announcement. He may soon have company from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-Nambe/Santa Fe).

Balderas is no stranger to statewide office in the Land of Enchantment. After winning a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2004, the freshman legislator was elected state Auditor in 2006. He then ran for an open Senate seat in 2008, but decisively lost the Democratic primary to now-incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich (D). He was re-elected Auditor in 2010, and then ran for, and won, the attorney general’s post in 2014. Balderas was re-elected in November with 62 percent of the vote.

Though he ran for re-election last year, it was originally thought that Balderas would challenge Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Albuquerque) for the open gubernatorial nomination. But, Grisham opened with a large lead, took advantage of her strong inside connections, and Banderas, knowing he could not afford to lose another statewide race, decided to stay put. Therefore, instead of running for governor, he made a major public production of supporting Grisham and unifying the party for the gubernatorial push. That move may well pay-off for him in this open Senate election.

We can expect others to join the 2020 Democratic race, too, since the eventual nominee will at least begin the general election with a sizable polling lead and the inside track for November. Freshmen Reps. Deb Haaland (D-Albuquerque) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-Las Cruces) are either open to considering the race (Haaland) or non-committal (Torres Small). Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller are two more prominent names being mentioned.

Republicans are clear underdogs here in the general election, but they still have potential candidates who could make the next race exciting. Gov. Susana Martinez, leaving office in January after winning two terms, would clearly be a major candidate even with poor approval ratings as she was departing, but the ex-state chief executive has yet to make any kind of statement about the impending race.

Former Albuquerque mayor, Richard Berry, who was twice elected to lead New Mexico’s dominant city, would also be a formidable candidate. A Republican who has proven he can win votes in the state’s major Democratic city will clearly remain near the top of the GOP recruitment list.

And former congressman, Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs), who has been the Republican nominee for both governor and senator, must also be viewed as a factor. Pearce, after losing the governor’s race last fall, was elected as the New Mexico Republican Party chairman.

The other political figure attracting attention is former governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson served two terms as New Mexico’s Republican governor (1995-2003), and then became the Libertarian nominee for president in both 2012 and 2016. Last November he entered the Senate race, as a Libertarian, against Sen. Heinrich but drew only 15.4 percent of the statewide vote, placing well behind the winning incumbent (54.1 percent) and Republican nominee Mick Rich (30.5 percent).

Johnson’s initial response to questions about whether he will run in 2020 is a definitive “no”, but plenty of time remains for him to change his mind. For his part, Rich also confirms that he is considering battling for the open statewide position.

In what was originally thought to be a non-competitive Senate contest, the 2020 New Mexico campaign could well transform into one of the nation’s most interesting campaigns.

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