Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich won retiring five-term Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s seat over former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson by portraying himself as a younger version of Bingaman: a deliberate, if unflashy, thinker interested in science and devoted to protecting the federal government’s large New Mexico presence. Like Bingaman, he advocated expanding energy production through a broad range of sources.
Heinrich (HYN-rikh) was born in Fallon, Nev., the son of an electrician and a factory worker. His parents moved to Missouri when he was a child, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Missouri. He moved to New Mexico in 1995 to found a political consulting business and serve as executive director of The Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, which runs adventure programs in the Southwest. In 2003, he was elected to the Albuquerque City Council. His signature issue was increasing New Mexico’s minimum wage in 2006. Heinrich worked with the city’s business leaders and community activists to produce compromise legislation mandating a gradual increase. He also lobbied for federal protection of the Ojito Wilderness.
Encouraged by then-Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, Heinrich announced that he would challenge Wilson for her House seat in 2008. National Democrats backed Heinrich’s candidacy, and he defeated three other hopefuls in the primary. In October 2007, Wilson announced her intention to give up the seat to run for the Senate. (She lost in the primary.)
Republicans fielded a strong replacement in Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White. But Heinrich tied White to the unpopular incumbent president by reminding voters that White had served as President George W. Bush’s Bernalillo County reelection chairman in 2004. White in turn questioned Heinrich’s business practices, saying nonprofit groups paid him for advocacy work without his first registering as a lobbyist. Heinrich maintained that the law had not required him to register when he was a political consultant for the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness from 2002 to 2005. Thanks in part to that year’s Democratic wave, Heinrich won easily, 56 percent to 44 percent.
In Congress, Heinrich sought to avoid being a down-the-line Democrat. He supported many of President Obama’s major initiatives, including the 2010 health care overhaul, but he endorsed spending cuts in some appropriations bills. Like many Western lawmakers, he backs gun-owners’ rights. As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, he introduced a bill in 2009 aimed at creating clean-energy jobs by providing a dedicated funding stream for the Bureau of Land Management to process a backlog in clean-energy project applications.
To help his district’s Sandia National Laboratories, Heinrich worked to raise the percentage of money spent on high-tech research and development at national labs. He also added a provision to the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill for a pilot program in which military bases and the labs work together on developing new electric-power systems. He won reelection in 2010 over Republican Jon Barela, a former president of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.
New Mexico’s Democratic establishment was eager for Heinrich to run for Bingaman’s seat as soon as the senator announced his retirement. Heinrich drew a Democratic primary opponent in state Auditor Hector Balderas, who hoped to tap into the state’s sizable Hispanic vote. But the party rallied around the more politically experienced Heinrich, and he won the primary with 59 percent of the vote.
That set him up for a general-election matchup against Republican Wilson, which was seen as a contest between two well-regarded candidates. A former Air Force officer and National Security Council staffer, Wilson was the political protege of popular former GOP Sen. Pete Domenici. With the help of Domenici’s network of supporters, she won several close reelection races in the House before losing to Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in the 2008 race to succeed Domenici in the Senate. In the 2012 GOP primary, she trounced Las Cruces businessman Greg Sowards with 70 percent of the vote.
In running against Heinrich, Wilson stressed her independence from her party, but Democrats painted her as too conservative for the state. Heinrich accused her of withholding her plan to address entitlement programs’ financial shortfalls while cutting spending. Wilson consistently trailed Heinrich in polls, eventually prompting national Republicans to turn their attention elsewhere.