Monday, February 21, 2011

Race To The Senate: Who's In The Top Tier? The Second Tier? Wild Cards? Plus: First Polling Bumps Heinrich, And: Not All Happy With Jeff Decision 

Top Tier: Heinrich, Lujan, Wilson & Sanchez
A flash poll in the aftermath of Senator Bingaman's surprise retirement announcement could put ABQ Dem Congressman Martin Heinrich in the driver's seat for the 2012 Democratic Senate nomination--if it is backed up by other surveys expected soon. Now the wait is underway for Heinrich to start the engine and begin what will be a risky race for the power and glory of the upper chamber of the American government. Meanwhile, recent Republican election success is buoying party hopes that the Senate seat could be theirs. We begin with the Dems.

Heinrich was careful not to step on Jeff's big day, but now that the dust has settled he came with this Sunday statement only a bit shy of a formal entry:

Together with my wife Julie, I plan to actively consider running. Jeff Bingaman and I share a passionate concern for this great state and its people, and my decision will be based on whether I believe I can best serve New Mexico in the House or in the Senate."

An automatic phone poll conducted among 1200 likely Democratic voters hours after Bingaman made his Friday afternoon announcement had Heinrich leading a field of nine potential Dem candidates. He scored 26%, with 2010 Dem Guv nominee Diane Denish garnering 17%. The seven others were back in the pack.

Among those trailing was northern Dem Congressman Ben Ray Lujan. However, the poll up (intentionally or unintentionally) mispronounced Lujan's name and that could have skewed the results.

The poll was conducted by a political operative unaffiliated with Heinrich or Lujan and is offered up with the proverbial grain of salt.

However, irrespective of any polling, Heinrich is rapidly emerging as the strongest potential nominee in the political parlors where the conventional wisdom is set. His ability to raise the massive amounts of money needed to run the race is nearly universally mentioned by political veterans of all stripes. Political pros expect his formal entry will not be immediate, but neither will it be months.


A Heinrich-Lujan Senate primary is not looking likely but it is seen as a potential debacle for the Dems. They would then have to defend two open US House seats and the Senate primary winner could be severely damaged by a bloody battle. How it should be avoided is Topic A on the lips of top Democrats here and in Washington.

Polling will be key. My top sources say the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) can be expected to try to exercise discipline over the two congressmen. If their polling shows Heinrich as the best general election nominee, they could try to clear the field for him. They could do that by directing resources and money his way. The same goes for Lujan.

Insiders believe Heinrich appears much more ready than Lujan to make the leap. Ben Ray's visibility on re-election to his safe House seat is unlimited. There is the hope that he can someday become a major player there. Also, at 38, Lujan can wait for a better Senate opportunity when his political muscle is stronger.

By consolidating the Hispanic vote in a one-on-one primary against Heinrich, Lujan could win the nomination, but his general election prospects are seen as more problematic than Heinrich who has superior strength in the key ABQ metro.

If Lujan doesn't make the run, the road would be cleared for another Hispanic candidate to challenge Heinrich's right to the nomination. But the bench is not all that deep and the money needed to make such a challenge represents a hurdle. However, in Lujan's absence, a credible Hispanic challenge to Heinrich can't be ruled out.


State Auditor Hector Balderas was not included in the automatic phone survey, but he is saying he is likely to run. He joins the second tier waiting for the feet of Heinrich and Lujan to drop. The early move by Balderas was read by one of our Senior Alligators as a sign that progressives in the Dem Party may be looking to stall Heinrich's momentum. In recent years Heinrich has adopted more centrist politics then he did as a progressive darling serving on the ABQ City Council.

For Balderas and all the second tier candidates below Heinrich and Lujan, the longshot hope is that the two congressmen decide to sit the Senate race out and their chances soar as a result. The odds on both staying out? The Alligators put that at about 25 to 1 against.

Balderas is fresh off a re-election win, but faces hurdles in Washington in trying to jump so high from his unheralded post, especially now that Heinrich's entry looms. Those hurdles include experience, money, name ID, and a record to run on. But testing the waters can't hurt and then there's that attorney general race in 2014. Then again, you don't want to look all wet.


How about a wild card candidate, like a wealthy businessman with the organizing skills to win a major party primary? In 1994, Republican Gary Johnson fit that profile and won the race for governor. Is there a rich gal or guy lurking in the background and thinking their time is now? Or how about someone famous? In 1976, astronaut Jack Schmitt, a moonwalker, burst on the state political scene and took down Dem US Senator Joe Montoya.

Money and fame may not guarantee personal happiness, but they do open the doors of politics. Let's see if anyone walks through them.


Other Democrats included in that robo call poll of Dems were Attorney General Gary King, former Attorney General Patricia Madrid, former ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez, State Dem Party Chairman Javier Gonzales, former Dem Lt. Gov. nominee Brian Colon and Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks.

Heinrich's statewide approval rating was 47%, with 23% disapproving. His approval rating in his own ABQ area congressional district was 68%. Diane Denish had a 53% statewide approval rating, with 30% disapproving. Remember, this was an all-Democratic survey.


And what of the Republicans? Will Congressman Steve Pearce stay out of the battle for the GOP Senate nod, making former ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson the automatic front runner and avoiding a rematch of their 2008 Senate duel which Pearce won? And what of other possible players?

The chess board here is very much like that of the Dems. Everyone waits for the two heavies to make their move and then the second tier will then know where it stands.

Pearce will be 65 in 2012. That's seen as too old to start a Senate career in a state that prizes seniority. Also, he lost his '08 Senate race to Dem Tom Udall in a landslide. For now, let's say Steve takes a pass.

That leaves Wilson, 50, who was tarnished in '08 when she lost the GOP US Senate primary to Pearce. Former NM GOP Chairman Edward Lujan told an interviewer after Jeff's announcement:

I spoke to Heather on Friday night and she sure sounded like a candidate.

But Heather could be in for another major primary challenge if she decides to run and if her numerous foes in the hard-core conservative wing of her party get their way.


Lt. Governor John Sanchez, fresh from his victory with Guv Martinez, is being urged to make the run for the Bingaman seat. His supporters agree he may not have the intellectual pedigree of Wilson who has an Oxford Ph.D, but they say he has the campaign skills, the personal money and the statewide name ID. They also argue he does not have the negatives Heather carries. They add that a Hispanic Republican is the right demographic fit for a 21st century US Senate candidate.

But the recent PPP poll showed Sanchez polling a very anemic 4% against Heather's 35% in a mock-up of a GOP US Senate primary.

At 48, Sanchez is the right age and wealthy from his roofing business. If he runs and loses, he would still be Lt. Governor. That term runs through 2014. He is a native Hispanic in a state that hasn't had an Hispanic US Senator since Joe Montoya was defeated for re-election in 1976. That could help Sanchez as Martinez's quest to become the first female Hispanic Governor helped her. But it is his money that puts the Light Guv into the top tier. A primary battle with Wilson could cost as much as $2 million. He can write the check.

Could Sanchez position himself as more conservative than Wilson--as Pearce did--and take the prize from her? He'll have to pass some authenticity checks. The ABQ resident is not perceived as all that conservative.

Wilson does have high negatives, but if she announces for the Senate could they recede somewhat because of her superior knowledge of national security and defense issues? Wouldn't those credentials stand out in a field that lacks anyone else of similar depth? And wouldn't she "kick ass and take names" in any TV debates with Sanchez? And don't forget all her years of campaign experience compared to Sanchez as well as her demonstrated commitment to the national labs and defense industry here.

Wilson, who held the ABQ congressional seat for 10 years, would like to have the field cleared for her, but who is to do the clearing? The GOP has an active Tea Party wing and appears too juiced up not to have at least two major primary players.

Even in the unlikely even of both Sanchez and Wilson stepping away, there are plenty of names that would rise to the surface. They all would be thinking the same thought: "Why not me?"

Sen. Chavez
There will be plenty of tributes--deservedly so--paid to Senator Bingaman's five terms in the Senate, but as with all things political, there is a flip side.
The long knives have come out on Bingaman, who became the state's senior Senator in 2009. The reason? He won't stay and carry on the legacy established by Senators Chavez, Anderson and Domenici in protecting the massive federal funding that comes into the state. An email from a Senior Alligator sums up this gripe:

Two years as senior senator with its opportunities and obligations to bring home the bacon to NM was enough for Jeff and his staff. They are known as intelligent, pleasant, genuinely nice people. (Former GOP senior Senator Pete) Domenici and his staff reveled in senior senator status and all the opportunities the seniority brings.

Pete's staff were renowned for their aggressive manner, getting projects and programs for NM and taking credit for everything. Jeff and his people quietly achieved through the accumulation of seniority and respect. In the last two years they asserted themselves and delivered for the national labs and New Mexico. I think they were drained by the effort.

Many New Mexicans expected Jeff and his staff to muscle and elbow their way into delivering money for their projects in the same way Pete did. Jeff had to be aware and pressured by this comparison. Initially, Jeff even avoided going after earmarks that benefited the district. Though admirable from the point of view of process, it didn't deliver the bacon to petitioning constituents.

I am sure all this played no small part in his decision to retire. The loss of Pete and Jeff's seniority will have a profound effect on the economy of New Mexico. But two years of the obligation of senior senator was more than enough for Jeff.

The Senate giants who preceded Jeff no doubt cast a long shadow. But he showed he could play at their level by recently helping to get stellar funding deals for Los Alamos and Sandia Labs that will extend several years out.

Ex-Senator Domenici, who served a record-setting 36 years, said he thought Bingaman is leaving in part because he was frustrated over the gridlock in the Senate. He noted that Jeff is chairman of the Senate energy committee, but in recent years could not forge an agreement on an energy bill.

It seemed to me, knowing about what is going on the Senate, that his life has become frustrating, to say the least--he may not say that, but I think it was...His committee did good work and didn't get a chance to present it because other things took precedent.

Is Bingaman's retirement selfish? Hardly. He will have served 30 years when his time is up. That is yeoman's service. But is there any truth to the argument that the yoke of being senior senator did not settle well on the shoulders of Bingaman as he also wrestled with a more rancorous Senate?

Former NM Governor Gary Johnson says one of the reasons he will not seek to replace Bingaman is because the job of a New Mexico senator is primarily to bring home the pork and he could not stand that. He's right about the job description. After years of delivering, maybe Jeff Bingaman found he had a touch of Gary Johnson in him.


How about this: When Senator Jeff Bingaman announced Friday that he would be retiring from the Senate he did so at the Hotel Andaluz (the old Hilton) in downtown ABQ. And what was the name of the room where he made that announcement? It was the "Martin J. Chavez Library," named after the former ABQ Mayor who briefly sought the Dem US Senate nomination in 2008.
Maybe Marty will take that as a sign from above that he needs to run to replace Jeff.

Joe Monahan
I was kicking around Santa Fe then, having signed up for a radio news gig as well as covering the Roundhouse for a string of stations around the state. Come November, it was time for Election Night. I wasn't all that high on it because it was not in the middle of the action in ABQ or on a larger outlet. But being an unabashed political junkie I made the best of it and put together the coverage for the big night by signing up Dem Santa Fe District Court Judge Michael Francke, a guy who was as quirky as he was brilliant.

The polls closed and we dived into the results with relish, especially the US Senate race featuring Attorney General Jeff Bingaman and Republican Senator Jack Schmitt. It soon became clear that Bingaman was going to take the seat. Out of the blue, Francke, who was a close friend to Jeff, told me during a break that he was going to get him on the phone right then and there. This was early in the evening and I told Michael that there was no way Bingaman was going to come on our somewhat obscure radio station and accept victory before he had even appeared on TV.

Francke was undeterred, dialed the hotel number for Bingaman and before my jaw could drop he was talking live on the air with Bingaman who accepted Francke's congratulations as they chatted like two blood brothers.

When the conversation was over I resumed the anchoring chores, but not before looking over at Francke who had a frat boy smile on his face and a triumphant gleam in his eye. I was 27 years old and had been around the bend a few times, but it was only then that I realized that whether reporting to 500 or 5 million, the joy of the scoop propels you to the same lofty heights.

The year was 1982. I was there and that's how I remember it.

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