Friday, August 24, 2012

New Mexico U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

New Mexico U.S. Senate

August 24, 2012
74 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

Longtime Democrat Senator Jeff Bingaman is towards the bottom in regards to national attention among his colleagues, but he has been well entrenched in New Mexico, having first been elected to that body in 1982 and easily hanging on since. A sixth term would have been a fairly easy proposition for him, but early on last year he announced his upcoming retirement, setting up a potentially competitive race to succeed him.

The general election contest was officially established after the June primary, but for months ahead, it was clear that final contenders were likely to be Democrat Congressman Martin Heinrich and his predecessor from his Congressional district, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson. The next U.S. Senator from a state with a significant and growing Hispanic population will be Anglo, despite the fact that major Latino contenders had entered both party's primaries and that so many of the statewide state level elected officials, from both parties, including the state's popular GOP female Governor, are Latino.

Heather Wilson, an Air Force veteran, won a 1998 special election to join the Congress, aided by a Green Party candidate splitting votes with a Democrat, but still it was an impressive victory for a Republican. Each cycle, she faced numerous tough challenges in a difficult, Democrat leaning district, but proved her mettle by surviving. After an especially close 2006 victory, Wilson looked for a bigger stage and sought her party's Senate nomination in 2008 for another open Senate seat. Previously considered a front-runner for the nomination, and the most electable candidate in the field, she lost the primary to a more conservative House colleague from a more Republican part of the state, who went on to be defeated. Meanwhile that year, Heinrich, the young, telegenic local politician, who had been planning to challenge Wilson for her House seat, easily won the open seat in a strong Democrat year.

After Bingaman's retirement announcement, numerous candidates considered the race, but Heinrich was thought of as the person that national party leaders most wanted to run. He would be opposed in the primary by an even younger opponent, Hector Balderas, the state's Auditor, but despite his statewide political experience and Latino name, Heinrich defeated him by nearly 18 points.

At the start of the race, Wilson's main opponent on the GOP side was the state's newly elected Lt. Governor John Sanchez, who had been the party's Gubernatorial nominee in 2002. Sanchez ran somewhat to Wilson's right, as she is considered fairly moderate on some social issues. While Sanchez received Tea Party backing, another candidate ran even further to the right, threatening to make things more difficult for him. Facing money difficulties, and expressing a desire to see the party avoid a bloody primary, Sanchez exited the race this past February, and Wilson went on to defeat her remaining primary opponent by 40 points.

Starting the general election, many considered the race to be a likely Tossup and a strong GOP pickup opportunity. However, despite the great showing by Governor Susana Martinez in 2010, the Land of Enchantment appears to still favor Democrats more and Heinrich has at at least a slight lead in every poll. Currently, he appears to be ahead of Wilson by about 7 and a half points according to the most recent polls.

There is enough time and volatility left for this to change, and Wilson is a solid candidate. However, having served in Congress for a longer period of time than Heinrich has been, she might not be seen as much of an outsider as would be politically helpful. Both candidates will hammer away at each others voting records. She should fairly easily carry the conservative 2nd Congressional District, while Heinrich will win the 3rd, which is the best for Democrats in the state. The race will then come down to the 1st District, where both have their bases and both have represented in the U.S. House. While I very much hope to be proven wrong, the dynamics of the state and the year in New Mexico point towards Heinrich keeping the seat for his party.

Wilson campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 11 D, 8 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 41 D, 45 R