New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) surprisingly announced Friday that he will not seek a sixth term in 2012 even though it appeared he was actively preparing for a new campaign. Mr. Bingaman looked very strong in early polling and was active on the fundraising circuit, raising just under $215,000 for the fourth quarter of 2010 with more than $500,000 cash-on-hand in his campaign account. Already, six senators including Bingaman — three Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent who caucuses with the Dems — have publicly announced their intention to retire at the end of the current term.
Bingaman’s reason for the retirement is simply, “it’s time.” Now the attention turns to who will run in his stead. Democrats will be regarded as favorites to hold the seat because the state’s recent voting history has trended decidedly their way. Before the middle of the past decade, however, New Mexico was commonly regarded as the quintessential swing state since both parties had the ability to win any statewide campaign.
With the 2010 election of Gov. Susana Martinez (R), NM voters may again be signaling that Republicans have a future in the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico is one of just three states (New Hampshire and Iowa were the others) that changed their allegiance repeatedly during the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections. New Mexico voted Democrat, Republican, and Democrat, respectively, in those three campaigns.
No office holder of either party has yet indicated they will run for Sen. Bingaman’s seat, though two relatively unknown GOP businessmen did say they would become candidates. Among Democrats, most of the early talk surrounds the party’s two congressmen, Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-NM-1) and Ben Lujan, Jr. (D-NM-3). Both are serving their second term in the House.
Of course, former Gov. Bill Richardson would be eligible to run, but his job approval and personal numbers are poor, suggesting he would not be the party’s strongest candidate. Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s name is also being mentioned, and she’s not ruling out a race, but Martinez comfortably defeated her for governor after the former began as a big favorite. The Dems are assured of having a strong nominee next fall.
On the Republican side, former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM-1) appears to be the party’s strongest candidate on paper. She would be a credible opponent for any Democrat in the general election, especially since she successfully held the very marginal first district over six tight, difficult elections. She ran for the Senate in 2008, but Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM-2) upended her in the Republican primary before he went on to lose to Sen. Tom Udall (D) in a landslide. Though she is not yet saying she’ll run in the open seat, the former congresswoman must be considered a top potential candidate.
For his part, sources close to Rep. Pearce say he will stay in the House after re-gaining in the last election the congressional seat he held thru 2008. Gov. Martinez has already said she will not be a Senatorial candidate. In 2009, the GOP pulled an upset in the Albuquerque mayor’s race by electing businessman Richard Berry. The mayor is another individual whose name will undoubtedly surface as a potential senatorial candidate.
Look for another close, tough Senate race here in 2012. Democrats will begin as decided favorites, but this is certainly a situation that will close and will likely become highly competitive as Election Day 2012 nears.
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