Inside the Capitol

Monday, October 24, 2011

10-26 Behind the U.S. Senate Race Scenes


SANTA FE – Any visible action still is sparse in New Mexico's congressional races. It is surprising because U.S. Senate contests without an incumbent usually happen only once every 30 years or so. House districts #2 and #3 are slam dunks but Congressional District 1 will be lively because Rep. Martin Heinrich is leaving it to make a run at the U.S. Senate.
Labor Day is the usual kickoff for such races but it didn't happen this time. Neither did the kickoff of nomination petition signing in early October create a stir. But much has been happening behind the scenes. Here is a run-down of the action there.
In early September, I wrote a column reporting that Lt. Gov. John Sanchez couldn't be doing much on his U.S. Senate campaign for a while because he would be busy presiding over the state Senate's contentious redistricting session.
Sanchez put my column on his website. That column also included my statement that Sanchez's two-year state House term early last decade included a voting record that was very moderate but that now he is running with strong conservative support.
Candidate Greg Sowards, of Las Cruces, wonders why Sanchez ever would have put my entire column on his website when it points out that his record is moderate. Other of my columns since early in the year have included my impressions from numerous past communications with Sowards that he is the true conservative in this race.
Sanchez's past moderation could help him gain independent support in a general election but he first has to get through a tough primary election in which former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson is generally considered the favorite. Wilson has amassed a bigger bankroll than any other candidate in either party.
The New Mexico Watchdog, an insightful conservative website. Has wondered about New Mexico not electing a Hispanic to the U.S. Senate since Sen. Joe Montoya left office in 1977. The combo of Montoya and Dennis Chavez held the seat from 1935 to 1977. But since then, the seat has been held by Harrison "Jack" Schmitt for six years and Jeff Bingaman for 30 years.
Does it matter that New Mexico have an ethnically balanced Senate tandem? I can remember for at least 65 years hearing my bilingual father say New Mexico takes pride in having a balanced congressional delegation.
Originally the state had only one U.S. House member and about half the time, he was Hispanic. In the early years, those Hispanics were Republicans. Then, as a result of New Mexico's wartime growth, we gained a second House member, also elected at large, in 1943. Antonio Fernandez held that seat for many years.
In 1969, those two seats were districted and Manuel Lujan always held the northern seat. In 1983, New Mexico gained a third seat. Bill Richardson captured that seat eight times while Lujan held the Albuquerque seat for three terms until retiring in 1989. Ben Ray Lujan has held that seat since 2009.
In summary, New Mexico has had a fairly ethnically balanced congressional delegation since soon after statehood. What does the future hold? Both Republicans and Democrats have a strong U.S. Senate candidate running this year.
Republican John Sanchez will have to best Heather Wilson and Greg Sowards. Democratic state Auditor Hector Balderas faces off against U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich. Wilson and Heinrich are considered the favorites at this point to win their primaries but Sanchez and Balderas both have decent shots.
Does ethnicity play a role in New Mexican voting? It has long been popular for both groups to claim it doesn't. But statistics prove that wrong. National Republicans have been working especially hard to showcase Hispanics elected to top posts last year. Gov. Susana Martinez is a beneficiary. John Sanchez may get considerable national assistance.
Sanchez and Balderas both steer clear of being ethnic candidates. The Watchdog observes that the topic is so radioactive for the other candidates that they should stick to saying how much they like posole.


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