Not so long ago, being labeled the “most liberal senator” might have been a problem for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is tied with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut at the far left end of National Journal’s 2012 vote ratings.
In 2004, New Mexico, with its five electoral votes, was a hard-won prize for President Bush on his way to a second term. Only Iowa’s vote in that year’s presidential race was closer. Al Gore won the state by an even slimmer margin—by mere hundredths of a percentage point—in 2000.
In the last two presidential elections, though, Barack Obama “blew the doors off the state,” as one respected New Mexico political analyst put it, garnering 57 percent of New Mexico’s vote in 2008 and 53 percent in 2012. In both years, Hispanics turned strongly against the Republican Party.
That brings us to the present. In the National Journal 2012 ratings being released in this week's magazine, Udall has a 90.7 percent composite liberal score, tying him with Blumenthal as the most liberal member of the Senate last year. Yet the liberal label will likely have little effect on Udall’s reelection bid next year. He is one of the most secure incumbents in the country, something he owes not just to his first-term record or his well-known name in Western politics, but to a changing New Mexico that now rests solidly in the Democratic column.
“The state has gotten more blue, no question,” said Joe Monahan, a communications consultant in New Mexico who has a political blog. “In years past, you might have worried about having that label. It might have helped draw a strong opponent. But the word ‘liberal’ is not what it was here.”
Udall still shies from the label, though. His office declined interview requests and instead provided a statement touting a nonideological approach. “Senator Udall is a New Mexican, and that’s the only label he’s concerned with,” wrote Marissa Padilla, Udall’s communications director, in an e-mail. “He’s proud of his record fighting for the middle-class families and job creation in our state. What’s not reflected in this analysis are the bipartisan bills he introduced last session with Republicans to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits, prevent ultralight aircraft from being used to smuggle drugs across the border, or prevent senseless drunk driving deaths. The people of New Mexico trust Tom Udall to defend their interests in the Senate.”
“Here’s the thing about New Mexico,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant who worked on Udall’s past House and Senate campaigns but is not currently under contract with him. “It is a state where I don’t think the traditional left-versus-right paradigm, liberal-versus-conservative, has ever meant anything.... The ‘us versus them’ is more populist versus the powerful in New Mexico, and that’s always how Tom has been. I don’t think he thinks about whether something is liberal or conservative, he’s just tried to be a champion for people.”
Udall has another nonideological argument to make for reelection. He became New Mexico’s senior senator this year, following Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s retirement, and Udall also secured a place on the Senate Appropriations Committee. While there are fewer federal dollars to pass around than there used to be, New Mexico still depends on government investment to keep its troubled economy moving, so Udall’s committee seat and his seniority are valuable assets.
Still, Udall’s rise in Congress over the past 25 years corresponds with a general statewide shift toward Democrats. Udall won his first term in the House from the solidly Democratic northern half of the state in 1998, after serving as New Mexico’s attorney general for eight years. But he had run in New Mexico’s 1st District, the longtime swing seat based in Albuquerque, 10 years prior. Udall lost the 1988 election by 4 points against Republican Steven Schiff. “The county was so Republican” that year, Monahan said. “They called it a swing seat but it didn’t swing much.”
It’s not swinging much now, either, though the end result has changed dramatically. Republicans couldn’t even contend in the 1st District when it opened up again last year. Freshman Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the district that foiled Udall 24 years earlier. Meanwhile, Obama won by 15 percentage points in 2008 and 10 points in 2012, exemplifying the national trend of growing Democratic advantages in heavily diverse areas.
New Mexico is a majority-minority state and Hispanics are the largest racial group there. Forty percent of New Mexicans are white, compared with 46 percent who are Hispanic. And while minorities’ raw population numbers haven’t yet translated to ballot-box dominance in other heavily Hispanic states—Texas, for example—nearly half of all New Mexico voters were nonwhite in 2012, according to exit polls. They voted Democratic at a 2-to-1 clip and had been steadily moving in that direction for much of the past decade.
“We reached a tipping point in the last five or so years,” Monahan said.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, contradicts any notion that Republicans can no longer find statewide success in New Mexico. But there is no one on the GOP bench to take on Udall who has Martinez’s charisma or personal appeal. Former state party Chairman Allen Weh, whom Martinez bested easily in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, looks to be Udall’s most likely opponent. But he is not expected to give Udall a major contest unless something changes dramatically.
Udall and his allies might shy from the “liberal” label, but it has more to do with his personal brand of governance than with political necessity. The new New Mexico isn’t a place where that hurts anymore, even with an election coming up. “This is a Democratic state now,” Monahan said.
This article appears in the Feb. 20, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.