Hours after Republican Sen. Pete Domenici’s surprise announcement that he would not run for re-election next year, the early-bird verdict from the political prognosticators-at-large was that the exit of one of only two elected Republican senators from New Mexico since 1932 meant that the Land of Enchantment would go back to Democrats-only for both seats that was the norm before Domenici was first elected in 1972.
Although New Mexico is still a bellweather state in terms of presidential politics (it went for Al Gore by less than 400 votes in 2000, for George Bush by about 1% of the vote in ’04), the state has been trending increasingly toward the Democrats in terms of winning offices. All but one of the statewide offices are in Democratic hands and Democrat Bill Richardson has twice won the governorship with ease (Gov. Richardson is now a Democratic presidential hopeful and eschewing all talk that he run for Domenici’s seat).
So it was no surprise to find considerable press attention on Democrats interested in the Senate seat following Domenici’s announcement: Rep. Tom Udall, son of former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and cousin of Colorado Rep. Mark Udall (the likely Democratic Senate nominee there in ’08); Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez; and former State Attorney General Patricia Madrid, who lost a squeaker to Republican Rep. Heather Wilson last year.
The Democrats’ dilemma with all this talent on one stage is the clear and present danger of a large and divisive primary, leaving scars that won’t heal in time for the general election. This was a key factor in Domenici’s initial election in 1972. With the retirement of four-term Democratic Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, 24 Democrats plunged into their primary with millionaire banker Jack Daniels emerging the winner with 32% of the vote. In contrast, Domenici—former mayor of Albuquerque and two years away from a narrow defeat for governor—defeated two primary opponents with a handsome 62% of the vote.
This time, two Republicans are being touted for their party’s Senate nod and they are both U.S. Representatives: conservative stalwart Steve Pearce (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 94%) from the Las Cruces-area district, and the more moderate Heather Wilson (lifetime ACU rating: 83%) from the Albuquerque district. One of the worst kept secrets in state politics is the desire of Pearce, who lost the Republican nomination for US Senator in 2000, to win statewide office. Pearce-watchers say that the three-term congressman made a major shake-up in his office in ’05 to help lay the groundwork for another Senate race.
Wilson has close ties to Domenici and to the Bush family, having served on the National Security Council staff in the elder Bush’s White House. But she has also had exceedingly close re-election bids in her last two trips to the polls. Although a case could be made that Wilson might have an easier time running statewide than in her own district, there is also a strong case to be made that were she to leave, her congressional district is far more likely to fall to the Democrats than Pearce’s, which has been in Republican hands for twenty-seven years and which he won easily in ’06.
Whatever happens, the fact is that a Republican considered an institution and unbeatable (Domenici won by a margin of 2-to-1 in ’02) is now departing and suddenly Republicans from Albuequerque to Washington are discovering they have a race on their hands in New Mexico.