U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico announced today that he will not seek a third term next year, making him the first Democratic incumbent to retire since 2016. Udall will turn 71 in May. The race will move to the Likely Democrat column.
New Mexico hasn’t been an easy state for Republicans in recent years. Although voters elected a Republican Governor in 2010 and 2014, Susanna Martinez was very unpopular when she left office at the end of 2018. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham easily won the open gubernatorial contest over then-Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, 57 percent to 43 percent.
Republicans haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat since the late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici retired in 2008. In fact, Udall won the seat Domenici vacated that year. While the GOP had maintained a foothold in the 2nd congressional district, which covers nearly the entire bottom two-thirds of the state and has a PVI of R+6, they lost it in 2018 when Democrat Xochitl Torres Small inched past Republican Yvette Herrell, 51 percent to 49 percent. This leaves Republicans shut out of the state’s congressional delegation, all statewide constitutional offices, and in the minority in both chambers of the state legislature. In addition, a Republican presidential nominee hasn’t carried the state since 2004 when then-President George W. Bush narrowly won; he had narrowly lost the state in 2000. President Donald Trump lost the state by eight points in 2016.
Given Republicans’ recent electoral losses, it’s not that surprising that they don’t have much of a bench of tested and successful potential candidates. Not only was Martinez too unpopular at the end of her term to make her a viable candidate, but she has always said that she has no interest in leaving New Mexico. Former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson would be a strong candidate, although she is resigning her current post as Secretary of the Air Force at the end of May to become the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Pearce, the former congressman and 2018 gubernatorial nominee, is likely to look at running, as will Herrell, who spent eight years in the state House of Representatives before making her unsuccessful bid for Congress last year. Beyond those two names, it’s hard to know who might take a serious look at running.
It’s also unclear at this writing who might seek the Democratic nomination. One possibility is U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who represents the 3rd congressional district, which encompasses the northern third of the state and includes Santa Fe. The district has a PVI of D+8, meaning that it votes eight points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018, Lujan was credited with leading his party to the House majority last year. Progressives are floating Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver as a potential candidate. She won a special election in 2016 and was easily elected to a full term last year.
Both U.S. Reps. Torres Small and Deb Haaland, who represents the 1st congressional district, will make the list of potential candidates (progressives are floating Haaland’s name) but are freshmen in the House. This doesn’t preclude them from running, but they wouldn’t be considered invincible.
It will take some time for the fields to form on both sides. While Democrats remain in a strong position to retain the seat, it will move to the Likely Democrat column while the situation sorts itself out.
Image: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal