Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

2-6 U.S. Senate races taking shape


SANTA FE – With filing day and party nominating conventions nearing, New Mexico's congressional candidates will soon be switching into high gear. Quarterly financial reports, which were due the end of January, provide some indication of where races appear to be headed.
The race for the U.S. Senate is extremely important to New Mexicans because once we elect our U.S. senators, we usually keep them for as long as they want. Sen. Pete Domenici served for 36 years. Sen. Jeff Bingaman will have served 30 years when he ends his term at the end of this year.
Four years ago, we elected Rep. Tom Udall to fill Sen. Pete Domenici's seat. Udall had 10 years of experience in the House. That didn't give him any extra Senate seniority but it did mean he could jump into his role immediately without any on-the-job training. Udall's Republican opponent was Rep. Steve Pearce who had six years in the House.
New Mexico finds itself similarly situated this year with the frontrunners in both parties boasting prior experience in the House. Former Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican, had over 10 years in the House. Rep. Democrat Martin Heinrich has been in the House four years, surviving the Republican landslide of 2010.
Wilson appears to be running the strongest race at the moment. She and Heinrich both have over $1 million sitting in their bank accounts at the moment. That is far more than any of their primary opponents.
Wilson is busy raising money and churning out news releases. Her biggest problem is that although she distinguished herself in Congress, serving on prestigious committees because of her background in national security, she also stepped on some toes.
She is working hard at softening her hard edged reputation. Her website currently shows her in various situations, smiling broadly. She also has a voting record to defend. In order to keep getting reelected in the Albuquerque area, she had to take some moderate positions. That does not serve her well in other parts of the state.
Wilson's strongest primary election opposition is coming from Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. But the opposition isn't as strong as many had expected. He is still self-funding much of his campaign and isn't making the noise that is getting him noticed.
One theory is that he is watching with great interest the notice that Gov. Susana Martinez is getting from the leading Republican presidential candidates. Not only has she been suggested by them as a vice-presidential running mate, she is a very likely choice for a cabinet position if Republicans are victorious in November.
Republicans are not polling well with women or Hispanics at this point, so having our governor out front would be a big help. Gov. Martinez insists she is not interested but she is on record indicating that she has the same presidential ambitions as our previous two governors.
If the governor were to end up in Washington next year, Lt. Gov. Sanchez would suddenly find himself our state's chief executive. Why would anyone want to go to all the work of running for the U.S. Senate when the possibility of being governor is dangling out there?
It would be interesting to see how a lieutenant governor would do taking over the reins of government. Most of our previous lieutenant governors have tried to move up after the previous governor's term. Not a single lieutenant governor since statehood 100 years ago has ever been elected governor. Many have tried but the only ones to succeed have been due to a governor's death or a move to Washington.
If the U.S. Senate race ends up being Wilson vs. Heinrich, the two will be well matched. Wilson ran statewide in the 2008 U.S. Senate primary and was defeated by Rep. Steve Pearce. Heinrich hasn't run statewide before. The little bit of polling that has been done shows Heinrich with a slight lead but that can change.


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