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Bingaman’s exit puts ‘safe’ N.M. seat in play

Democratic Senate at risk

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2011

Democrats put on a brave face after Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico announced Friday that he would leave office in 2012, but it's hard to see how his retirement contains any good news for the party.

The 68-year-old Mr. Bingaman, who has never lost a race, was considered a shoo-in for a sixth term. Instead, his departure puts a fourth Democratic Senate seat into play, meaning that Democrats get none of the advantages of incumbency and all the headaches of trying to hold onto a previously safe seat in a state where Republicans are surging.

The other departing Democrats are North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Virginia's Jim Webb, along with independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democrats. On the Republican side, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona have announced they will not seek re-election in 2012.

"Like the earlier retirements in North Dakota and Virginia, Sen. Bingamans decision immediately presents another strong pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh in a statement. "It also further limits the ability of national Democrats to play offense when their resources will be spread out over such an expansive defensive map."

Democrats have 23 Senate seats up for election in 2012, compared with just 10 for Republicans. The math alone puts Democrats in an enormous hole, prompting Cook Political Report senior analyst Jennifer Duffy to declare Friday that "a Republican Senate majority in the next Congress is almost inevitable."

Still, New Mexico has to be viewed as a bright spot for Democrats. The state has become something of a Democratic stronghold in the West, with both Senate seats and two of three House seats in Democratic hands. President Obama coasted to victory in 2008 by a margin of 57 percent to 42 percent over Republican John McCain, from neighboring Arizona.

But the 2010 elections showed that New Mexico isn't yet ready to join California, Oregon and Washington as solid-blue Western states. Republican Susana Martinez was elected New Mexico governor, Republicans retook one of the two House seats they lost in 2008, and the GOP picked up a handful of seats in the state House.

Neither party can point to a clear front-runner in the race to succeed Mr. Bingaman. The two Democratic House members, Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, are both young up-and-comers elected in 2008 and seen as early contenders.

"Moving forward, Democrats in New Mexico have an incredibly strong bench of candidates to draw from, and the Democratic Party is going to work hard every day to ensure our nominee wins in November," said New Mexico Democratic Party chairman Javier Gonzales in a statement.

Another possibility is former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who lost to Ms. Martinez in November by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent.

Republicans will likely pick their nominee from a collection of ex-officeholders, starting with former Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. Both left office to pursue the open Senate seat in 2008, with Mrs. Wilson losing the Republican primary and Mr. Pearce losing the general election to Democrat Tom Udall.

One of the most popular New Mexico Republicans of the past two decades is former Gov. Gary E. Johnson, who served two terms before being term-limited and was known as a budget-cutter extraordinaire, a theme that could play well in the current political climate.

Mr. Johnson hasn't run for anything since he left office in January 2003, although he has been mentioned as a possible 2012 presidential candidate.

A Public Policy Polling survey of likely Republican voters taken Feb. 2-4 — before the Bingaman retirement — showed Mrs. Wilson leading the Republican field with 35 percent, followed by Mr. Johnson with 27 percent, and Mr. Pearce with 17 percent.

The same survey showed both Democrats, Mr. Heinrich and Mr. Lujan, running ahead of the Republicans, Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Pearce, in hypothetical election matchups. However, Mr. Johnson runs narrowly ahead of those same Democrats in a hypothetical contest.

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