Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s announcement today that he will retire at the end of this Congress is the third such announcement for Democrats in nine days, bringing the total number of Democratic open seats to four. This open seat in New Mexico also holds some significance for the overall Senate picture. It moves to the toss-up column, which now has six Democratic-held seats compared with two for Republicans.
That Democrats have 23 seats up in 2012, compared with 10 for Republicans, means that a Republican Senate majority in the next Congress is almost inevitable. The large disparity in the number of races in the toss-up column simply increases Republicans’ odds of winning a majority in 2012. In fact, it’s worth asking whether these four open Democratic seats amount to something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because three of the four are in the toss-up column today.
Until the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats had had a fairly good run in New Mexico. Then-Vice President Al Gore carried the state by just over 300 votes in the 2000 presidential contest. Although President George W. Bush won here in 2004, it was by a single percentage point and by less than 6,000 votes. President Obama avoided a nail-biter of a race in 2008, soundly defeating GOP presidential nominee John McCain, 57 percent to 42 percent.
Democrats also held the governorship for eight years, and they now have both U.S. Senate seats, although they didn’t win the second until 2008. Also that year, the party won all three seats in the congressional delegation. Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature with margins of 45 seats to 25 seats for Republicans in the House and 27 seats to 15 seats in the Senate.
Republicans, though, made real gains in 2010. Then-Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez won the governorship, defeating then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, 53 percent to 47 percent, to become the nation’s first Hispanic female governor.
Republicans picked up one of the two House seats they lost in 2008, and they made gains in the state House (the Senate was not on the ballot), although they remain in the minority. Democrats now hold 37 seats to 33 for Republicans. In short, New Mexico is a more competitive state than many people believe, and Bingaman’s retirement is welcome news to Republicans.
Republicans were hoping to give Bingaman a race this cycle, particularly since he has gotten just nominal challenges in recent years. He won reelection in 2006 with 71 percent of the vote. Former Rep. Heather Wilson is high on the GOP’s recruiting list.
First elected in 1998, Wilson represented the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District, which has a PVI score of D+5, meaning that it votes 5 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. As such, Wilson was a perennial target for Democrats and never had an easy race. She gave up her seat in 2008 to run for the Senate, but lost that primary by 2,914 votes to her colleague Steve Pearce.
Wilson, who just completed running Martinez’s transition, had a reputation in Congress for protecting the interests of her district and for solid constituent service, and she was a strong fundraiser. But she also had one of the more moderate records in the House Republican Caucus, sitting squarely on the chamber’s ideological 50-yard line. Thus, her loss in the Senate primary illustrates the one disadvantage she does have: She may be too moderate to win a Republican primary, particularly in the tea party era. That said, Wilson would be a very strong general-election candidate in that she appeals to moderates and independents and hails from the biggest media market in the state, so she has name identification as well.
Another potential candidate is Pearce. He lost the open-seat Senate contest in 2008, a terrible year for his party, to then-Rep. Tom Udall, 39 percent to 61 percent. He had been elected to the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses Roswell and Las Cruces, in 2002. He made a comeback in 2010, winning his old seat with 55 percent. Pearce has obviously long aspired to be in the U.S. Senate, so it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him run again, despite having been elected to the House less than four months ago. His greatest advantage in a primary may be that he hails from the most Republican district in the state with a PVI of R+6.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson has also been mentioned. Johnson is exploring a presidential bid, and his interest in the Senate isn’t known. Businessman and political neophyte Bill English has announced his intention to run.
The only public poll we’ve seen is a Public Policy Polling (IVR) survey (February 2-4 of 357 regular GOP primary voters). It had Wilson leading the field with 35 percent to 27 percent for Johnson, 17 percent for Pearce, 6 percent for 2010 Attorney General nominee Matt Chandler, and 4 percent for Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. Wilson’s favorable/unfavorable ratings were 71 percent to 18 percent, while Pearce’s were 69 percent to 16 percent.
The most likely potential Democratic candidates are Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan. Heinrich, 39, might be the strongest candidate simply because he hails from Albuquerque where he was the popular president of the City Council before he was elected to Congress in 2008, succeeding Wilson. Heinrich’s challenge that year was making it through the four-way Democratic primary, which he won with 44 percent. He was victorious in the general election, receiving 56 percent of the vote, and he was reelected to a second term in 2010 with 52 percent.
Lujan was also elected in 2008, winning the Santa Fe-based 3rd Congressional District that Udall vacated to run for the Senate. It is the most Democratic in the state with a PVI of D+7. Lujan also faced a competitive primary in his first bid, taking 42 percent in a four-way field. He won the general election with 57 percent and was reelected last year with 57 percent. Lujan is the son of New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan.
None of the three House members would start the race with a significant financial advantage. As of December 31, Heinrich had $54,473 in the bank, while Lujan had $55,809, and Pearce had $33, 374 cash.
According to the early-February Public Policy Polling survey (545 registered voters), Heinrich was ahead of Wilson, 50 percent to 39 percent, and Pearce, 53 percent to 38 percent, in hypothetical general-election matchups. Lujan also bested both Republicans. He led Wilson, 48 percent to 40 percent, and was ahead of Pearce, 49 percent to 37 percent.
We don’t put a lot of stock in one survey, especially an IVR poll, taken before Bingaman’s announcement. One takeaway is that New Mexico is likely to host its first competitive Senate race in decades, assuming that both parties recruit first-tier challengers.
In putting this race in the toss-up column, which has six Democratic seats to two Republican ones, it is now possible for Republicans to score the net gain of four seats they need to win the majority. WARNING: We are not predicting a Republican majority. That’s impossible to do with 20 months to go before the election. What we are saying is that it looks more likely today than it did yesterday. And, if it comes to pass, Democrats will have to look at their open seats as a major part of the reason. In some ways, it seems that Senate Democrats, who know well that their hold on the majority is precarious, are unwittingly engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy because these retirements make it only more difficult for them to retain the majority.
This cycle has miles and miles to go, but Republicans are sitting in an increasingly strong position.