Around the U.S. in 50 Days: New Mexico

Just as Democrats see an opportunity in Arizona, especially in a vacant Senate seat, Republicans should see a greater chance in neighboring New Mexico. Most of the news revolves around the retirement of and replacement for Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman.

For President, the state has been becoming increasingly blue with each successive election and 2012 should not be any different. This state will go for Obama and probably by the same margin as in 2008. Most of the growth in population occurred in the Albuquerque area and like most western states, it has a growing Hispanic population- two demographics that generally favor Democrats.

For the Democratic nomination to succeed Bingaman, Martin Heinrich will vacate the Albuquerque-based 1st District. With former Lt. Governor Diane Denish and Rep. Ben Lujan pulling out early, the race becomes Heinrich’s to lose. He will have to go through a primary that features state auditor Hector Balderas and social activist Andres Valdez. Originally, ex-Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez declared his candidacy, but pulled out to run not against Heinrich, but for his House seat. On the Republican side are businessman Bill English, Lt. Governor John Sanchez and ex-Representative Heather Wilson. Wilson formerly represented the Democratic-leaning 1st District and won her races in 2000 and 2004 by comfortable margins despite it also voting for Gore and Kerry. Hence, one would have to surmise that this race will pit two fairly well-known and liked candidates in Heinrich versus Wilson. The fact Wilson can win in a Democratic leaning district and by comfortable margins (her closest call came in 2006) gives her a leg up here. Given the stakes (like the balance of the Senate), this could be an expensive race with lots of outside money. While many Republicans are drooling over Nebraska, North Dakota and possibly Florida for Senatorial pick ups, they would be remiss in their duties if they overlook New Mexico.

New Mexico has three House seats currently 2-1 for the Democrats. There is no drama in the 2nd where Republican Steve Pearce should win nor in the 3rd where Democrat Ben Lujan should win. That leaves the vacant 1st District. This is an interesting, compact district where one would expect Democrats to actually perform better. However, Heinrich is the first Democrat to win the district in 2008 after Wilson left to run for Senate against Tom Udall. In 2008, he won by 12 points only to see that support dissipate to 4 points two years later. The first Democrat to enter the race was state senator Eric Griego who came out blasting Washington Republicans. Because certain “blue dog Democrats” were considering a run, progressive groups early jumped behind Griego with money and vocal support. However, he will have stiff competition against an old rival in the ex-Mayor of Albuquerque, Martin Chavez. In fact, Griego ran to the left of Chavez for Mayor in 2005 and lost by over 20 points after being outspent by Chavez 4-1. Chavez eventually lost the mayor’s job over incumbent fatigue and a small scandal over favoring city contracts, an issue which should resurface in the course of a primary or general election campaign.

They have already had spats. Chavez has been described by New Mexico Democratic operatives as the perfect fit for this moderate district. Hence, he is a moderate. One of his first mailings was to blast Republicans for insisting on the possibility of Social Security and Medicare cuts as part of the debt ceiling deal. This leftist rhetoric, including the “Republicans are for the rich and I am for the middle class and poor” stump lines, caught the attention of Griego who released a bitter and sarcastic response to Chavez’s suddenly more liberal stances. He insinuated that Chavez was trying to repaint himself as more liberal than what he really has shown in the past. Compounding matters is the fact that Bernalillo County commissioner Michele Lujan Grisham has entered the race. This will be a bruising primary battle that can only help the Republicans.

For Republicans, they believe they have a 50/50 shot at the seat, although the odds are more like 35-45%. One time Albuquerque City Councilman Dan Lewis entered the race and raised over $100,000 in the first quarter of his run. And former state representative Janice Arnold-Jones has also entered the race. One should not count out the possibility that Jon Barela, who lost by 4 points to Heinrich in 2010, may enter this race. He currently is secretary of the state’s Economic Development Department and an endorsement from Hispanic Republican and fairly popular New Mexico Governor Sue Martinez would go a long way here. Although it should be an interesting and close race, I believe the Democrats will eventually prevail in a very close race and keep the delegation 2-1 in their favor.

In conclusion, Obama takes their five electoral votes while Heather Wilson wins a hard-fought, somewhat expensive and eventually close race against Martin Heinrich while a Democrat will hold the 1st District for another two years thus leaving no pick ups for the GOP in this state.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 83 electoral votes to 36 for the GOP nominee;
Net gain of two Governors;
Net gain of one Senate seat, and;
Net loss of 4 Republican House seats.

Next: Texas