Monday, April 25, 2011

Breakfast At Bernie's: Ben Ray Says No Senate Bid In Cards, Plus: We're Deep Inside This Senate Race Plotting The Next Moves 

We start the week with news from Chef Bernie's in Farmington. Why there? Well, we have a report from one of our Alligators who says Dem Congressman Ben Ray Lujan has now said out loud what the political community has presumed--he will not get into the battle for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate:

At a breakfast meeting in Farmington with local Dems, Congressman Lujan went on the record to say that he is running for re-election to his northern US House seat and is NOT going to enter the Democratic US Senate primary. Obviously, part of the reason for this is that (Rep. Martin) Heinrich has already tied up a lot of the $$$, but the Dems are also learning from the Pearce-Wilson Senate debacle of '08, when the R's gave up two seats in the House to battle for retiring Senator Domenici's seat in the Senate, and lost all.

True enough. And then there's the timing issue. Lujan, 38, is serving his second two year term in the US House. There will be other Senate opportunities for him before his career is over. Leaving his very safe congressional seat is too big a gamble. Besides, even though the Dems no longer have the majority in the House, Washington watchers say Lujan finds his work there satisfying. Also, he is already 2nd vice-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus which taps him into the national political scene.

Lujan has carved out a reputation as politically astute and as a hard worker. He has no major missteps on his record since taking office in 2009. He regularly tends to the needs of his district through constant visits and constituent service.

The three congressional seats will be redistricted by the Legislature this fall, but Lujan's heavily Hispanic and Native American seat is not expected to change substantially. Also, there are no signs that he will draw any Democratic primary opposition--the main threat to his tenure in a district where a Republican is almost dead on arrival in a general election.


Lujan has given attention to a wide assortment of issues in his largely rural district which includes that island of prosperity--Los Alamos. A major focus has been on alternative energy sources. More recently, he has been more outspoken on economic issues as high unemployment remains a major problem in the north--especially in natural gas rich Farmington---an area of the district that is decidedly conservative and where Tom Mullins, his last Republican opponent hails from.

Lujan's political foes have snickered at his background as a blackjack dealer and assigned his political success to the fact that his father is NM House Speaker Ben Lujan. But the younger Lujan has not rested on his father's laurels, garnering a reputation as serious-minded and a worker bee.

One criticism is that he tries to do much and can sometimes give short shrift to issues on his plate. But his working class roots (that casino job), the struggle he had earning a college degree and his determination to succeed on his own--he won election to the PRC before Congress--have resonated in the Spanish North. He has won respect that is not easy coming when you are the son of a father who casts such a long shadow.

Lujan now enters a phase of a career where patience will be paramount. How long it will take the Dems to regain control of the US House is anyone's guess. Your interest can stray when you have less power and responsibility. Then there is the perilous political standing of his legendary father. He was nearly ousted from his Santa Fe area House seat in the 2010 Dem primary. Some analysts think that the younger Lujan's polling numbers would be stronger if not for some of the father's recent negatives brushing up against him. It will be up to the senior Lujan to decide when the time for retirement has come, casting the younger Lujan in the role of patient son.

Lujan opting to stay out of the Senate race is a gift to Rep. Heinrich who has gone all in and given up his House seat to make the run. Lujan would be a major threat for the Dem nomination, more so than State Auditor Hector Balderas who will announce this week that he will take on Heinrich.

There is no sense that Lujan will try to derail Heinrich and side with Balderas. In fact, the opposite may be in the offing. Lujan and Heinrich do not have a close relationship but there is a mutual respect. We would guess that a Senator Heinrich would be a better fit for Lujan than a Senator Balderas which would put in place a much more complicated rivalry.

A quiet Lujan push in the north for Heinrich could have major consequences. The ABQ congressman remains unknown--if not mistrusted--in Hispanic precincts far away from ABQ. Lujan's assent to Martin's candidacy--blatant or otherwise--could go a long way in quelling any ground swell for Hector. In turn, Heinrich would be deeply--and gladly--indebted to Ben Ray. On the other hand, Lujan's prospective role as a power broker for Balderas is hard to see. Hector positions himself as an independent Democrat, fighting the establishment which Lujan now represents. Like Lujan, he is a northern Hispanic (from Wagon Mound) who will be able to cater to the Hispanic vote on his own.

Washington insiders say one thing to keep our eye on is the role of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus where Lujan has that prominent position. Will the group be pressured to support Balderas. If so, how does Lujan play it?


When Senator Bingaman leaves next year, New Mexico will be a like a child among adults in Washington. Our congressional delegation will be at its most immature in terms of experience since the early 70's. Both of our Senators will be first-termers and our three congressmen will languish deep down the seniority list. But it won't be that way forever. Out of similar circumstances arose Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman. New Mexicans awarded them with repeated re-election wins and they gradually assumed the roles of their powerful senatorial forefathers. The federal government's historic role in the state was protected and advanced.

It's a good bet that one Senate torch will eventually be passed to either Heinrich or Lujan. Gambler Heinrich is doubling down--giving up his House seat and running now. He awaits the final flip of the cards. Lujan is in the game, but the one time blackjack dealer is sitting out this hand. For him, there will be many more to play.


The WaPo ranks the top ten Senate seats most likely to switch parties in 2012 and New Mexico's open slot is currently #10 on the list.

New Mexico (Democratic controlled): Rep. Heinrich’s entry into the Democratic primary gives his party a big boost. Heinrich is considered one of the bright young stars in the party, and many see him as the party’s top recruit...But, state Auditor Hector Balderas is also about to announce a run, which means a competitive Democratic primary. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray notably declined to endorse Heinrich last week....


The Senate seat Jeff Bingaman is retiring from next year has a long history of Democratic control. Dennis Chavez took it over in 1935 and held it until he died in 1962. Since then Republicans have managed to elect only one of their own to the seat---Jack Schmitt in 1976 who beat Senator Joe Montoya. Bingaman beat Schmitt in 1982 and has held the seat since. Republican Governor Ed Mechem appointed himself to the seat when Chavez died, but he failed in his election bid, losing to Montoya in 1964.

The seat came into being with statehood in 1912. We were more Republican back then and two R's--Thomas Catron and Albert Fall--were elected by the NM Legislature as our first US Senators. That was a year before the US approved the direct election of Senators. Today the Fall seat is occupied by Democrat Tom Udall.


We had a good time moderating the "reverse press conference" sponsored by the NM branch of Women in Communications. The group had plenty of questions for the ABQ Journal's Donn Friedman, KUNM-FM radio's Tristan Clum and Paulette Mastio of KRQE-TV. All of them are engaged in the digital side of journalism. The reverse press conference has been going strong for 25 years....

And thanks to the ABQ chapter of Executive Women International (EWI) for having us to dinner where we spoke about New Mexico politics. We talked a lot about education. The group is involved in literacy efforts in the local schools and we thank them for that as well....This weekend had us talking over the presidential candidacy of former NM GOP Governor Gary Johnson with Katie Kim of KRQE-TV.

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