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Bingaman Holds Key in N.M.

His Plans Affect ’06 Political Landscape

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is expected to decide in mid-March whether to seek a fifth term in 2006. It’s a decision that could have major reverberations in New Mexico.

A decision to retire would create the first Senate vacancy in the state since Sen. Pete Domenici (R) was elected in 1972. (Bingaman won his seat by defeating Republican Sen. Harrison Schmitt in 1982.)

Bingaman’s retirement could prompt vacancies in all three of the state’s House districts, because all three Representatives are seen as potential Senate candidates in an open-seat race.

“If he does step down, he opens up a lot of boxes out of that Pandora,” said Greg Graves, executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party.

Bingaman will make his intentions known shortly after informing his staff of his decision, sources in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., said this week.

“We will hear from him in a matter of weeks,” Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokeswoman, confirmed.

Political observers disagree on whether the 61-year-old Senator wants six more years in Washington, and the preternaturally reticent lawmaker has dropped no discernible hints. As of Sept. 30, he had a modest $282,000 in his campaign account.

Those who know Bingaman say he still enjoys serving in the Senate, is confident enough about his prospects for re-election, and doesn’t appear eager to slide into a lucrative lobbying post if he retires.

But several authorities on New Mexico politics say that Bingaman is weighing whether he wants to aggressively campaign and raise money for another term, especially when Democrats will probably remain in the Congressional minority for the foreseeable future. He would be far more eager to run again, sources say, if he could move up from ranking member to chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 110th Congress.

If Bingaman does run again, he would be a strong favorite for re-election, even though New Mexico was one of just two states — Iowa was the other — that voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and then switched to President Bush in 2004.

Democrats, smarting from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s razor-thin loss in the Land of Enchantment last November, are “digging in already and building our infrastructure for 2006,” said Matt Farrauto, a spokesman for the state party.

In the meantime, Bingaman’s decision will be made amid uncertainty over what the future holds for his Republican counterpart, Domenici. The state’s 72-year-old senior Senator has battled a variety of ailments in the past year, but has told reporters that he has been feeling better of late and is undecided about seeking a seventh term in 2008.

“It would be disastrous for them to retire back-to-back,” said a former Democratic strategist in Santa Fe who is now a lobbyist in the state Capitol.

Until Bingaman announces his intentions, politicos say, Congressional politics in the Land of Enchantment are essentially on hold.

Some Republican leaders, emboldened by Bush’s showing there, hold out the hope that Rep. Heather Wilson (R) — who is seen as very likely to run for an open Senate seat — decides to challenge Bingaman if he runs for another term.

Assuming Bingaman seeks re-election and Wilson does not run against him, Republicans mentioned as possible challengers include former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, state Rep. Dan Foley and former state Rep. John Sanchez, the 2002 GOP nominee for governor and the Southwest chairman of Bush’s re-election campaign.

Not coincidentally, all three are also considered possible challengers to Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is favored to win a second term in 2006 even as he ponders a run for the White House in 2008.

“I’d love to some day come to Washington as a U.S. Senator,” Foley said.

But both Foley and Bradley allowed that they are looking more seriously at running for governor than for the Senate at this early stage, since Republicans believe that Richardson, a sometimes controversial figure, may have more vulnerabilities than the low-key Bingaman.

“A lot of guys who have ambition look at the governor as an 800-pound gorilla,” Graves said. “I think he’s lost a little weight since the last election.”

Bradley said he is considerably more likely to run for Senate if Bingaman retires, but under that scenario, Wilson and Rep. Steve Pearce could also be competing for the GOP nomination.

Republican leaders hope that someone powerful — possibly Domenici, who is close to Wilson — could act to prevent a bloody Senate primary between the two House Members. Here again, Domenici’s own future plans could be a factor.

But Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque political consultant, believes that Pearce won’t be willing to give Wilson a free ride to the nomination — and that Wilson’s attempts to distance herself from conservative Republican House leaders in order to win re-election to her Albuquerque-based district could hurt her in a statewide GOP primary.

Jim Burns, a spokesman for Pearce, said it is too early to comment about 2006.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Udall said that while the Congressman “strongly” hopes Bingaman runs for re-election, he would “examine his options” — and presumably look at a Senate race — if there is a vacancy. In addition to winning re-election easily since first being elected to Congress in 1998, Udall has the advantage of having won statewide races for attorney general in 1990 and 1994.

But Udall is considered risk-averse, and like Wilson, he would not necessarily get the nomination without a fight. State Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D), who is term limited in 2006, would probably run for an open Senate seat.

“I don’t think there’s any mystery there — she needs a job,” the Santa Fe lobbyist said.

Madrid, a former judge, has already lost twice to Udall in Democratic primaries: in a 1988 Congressional race and in the 1990 attorney general election. And she has been at odds at times with Richardson, who presumably would have some say about who wins the Democratic Senate nomination.

But sources close to Richardson said that Madrid seems to be mending fences with the governor, possibly in anticipation of a future Senate run. If elected, Madrid would make history by being the first Hispanic woman in the Senate.

Another possible Democratic candidate for Senate is Gallup Mayor Bob Rosebrough, who would likely try to position himself as a political outsider.

A vacancy in any of the three Congressional districts would also cause its own stampede, and both parties would spend a fortune to boost their candidates, particularly in the 1st district, where Democrats have targeted Wilson since she won a special election in early 1998.

The leading Republican in the 1st might be Bernallilo County Sheriff Darren White, a media-savvy former TV reporter who resigned his post as state secretary of public safety to protest then-Gov. Gary Johnson’s (R) proposal to decriminalize many drug offenses.

Other potential GOP candidates for the 1st district are state Rep. Justine Fox-Young, state Rep. Greg Payne, attorney Alan Wilson and state Rep. Theresa Zanetti.

The list of possible Democratic candidates is headed by Madrid and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and also includes New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim; former U.S. Attorney John Kelly; former Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who unsuccessfully challenged Domenici in 2002; and physician Miles Nelson, who ran an outsider’s campaign for the nomination in 2004. Both Wertheim and Kelly have run for the House seat before.

In the 2nd district, Republican possibilities include Foley, state Sen. Rod Adair and businessmen Edward Tinsley and Phelps Anderson, who were runners-up to Pearce in the 2002 GOP primary. State Rep. Joseph Cervantes is a possible Democratic candidate.

In the heavily Democratic 3rd district, possible Democrats include Rosebrough; former Santa Fe County Commissioner Javier Gonzales; state Public Regulatory Commissioner Ben Ray Lujan (son of the state’s Speaker of the House); former state engineer Eluid Martinez; Tony Martinez, who heads the state’s D.C. lobbying office; state Rep. Al Park; state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna; and New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, who is also term limited in 2006.

Republicans who might run include Udall’s 2004 opponent, San Juan County District Attorney Gregory Tucker; former state GOP Chairman John Dendahl; and former Rep. Bill Redmond, who held the seat for a year and a half before being defeated by Udall.

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