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As Udall Plots, Chavez Fumes

Rep. Tom Udall’s (D) off-again, on-again flirtation with the New Mexico Senate race, and the desire by top Washington, D.C., Democrats to recruit a candidate other than Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, could provoke a volatile primary and scar the Democratic nominee in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested elections of the cycle.

Udall, after originally saying he would not run for Senate, changed his mind last week under pressure from Democratic leaders and is now expected to announce his candidacy by mid-November. Chavez, undeterred by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) lack of enthusiasm for his bid, made clear on Wednesday that under no circumstance would he exit the race.

“This will not be a sweet primary. It just won’t,” Chavez said during a telephone interview. “The contrast in records between me and the Congressman won’t situate him well for the general election.”

“I’m in this to the end,” Chavez added.

Udall spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said Wednesday that her boss is considering running for Senate in 2008 but declined to elaborate beyond that. She said he would reveal his decision sometime in the next two weeks.

To date, Chavez and wealthy developer Don Wiviott remain the only candidates in the Democratic primary. Popular New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) could have cleared the field, but he has chosen to focus on his presidential campaign instead. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) also spurned Schumer’s appeal to run.

Even before Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.) announced last month that he would retire, Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried and failed to convince Udall to challenge the iconic Republican incumbent.

But Democratic sources, both in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., believe Udall has finally changed his mind and is set to announce that he will run.

They say his change of heart came about after he received assurances from Richardson that the governor would not run. As it happens, Udall has a good pipeline to Richardson because his stepdaughter, Amanda Cooper, is the deputy campaign manager for the governor’s presidential bid.

The consensus in New Mexico is that Udall would beat Chavez in the primary. But Democratic insiders in the Land of Enchantment tend to agree that how the situation is unfolding has created a scenario that is confusing at the very least.

“The situation is somewhat unsettling,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) acknowledged this week during an interview on Capitol Hill.

DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller declined to comment on the committee’s role in recruiting a candidate to run in the New Mexico Senate race and also demurred when asked to respond to the claims of some Democrats there that Schumer was meddling.

If Udall does jump into the race, observers monitoring the Democratic primary expect Wiviott to exit the contest and seek the Congressman’s 3rd district seat. Even if Chavez remains in the race as he has vowed to do and a heated primary ensues, Democrats predict Republicans will not benefit politically as they have a contested primary of their own.

Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce are vacating their 1st and 2nd district seats, respectively, to run for the GOP Senate nomination.

Although Schumer’s disaffection for Chavez might prove to have no lasting negative effect on this contest, there is some evidence to suggest Democratic Party activists in New Mexico are none too pleased with the attempt by Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill to influence the candidate field.

At a meeting of the central committee of the state Democratic Party last weekend that featured speeches by candidates and potential candidates, Chavez received the most applause when he told the audience that Washington would not pick New Mexico’s next Senator, according to one Democrat who attended the event.

“Obviously, he hit a nerve,” this Democrat said.

Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based political analyst, said the DSCC runs the risk of helping to fragment Democratic voters after the primary.

Monahan said Udall is quite formidable and is widely supported, having previously served as state attorney general. But Monahan said there could be a backlash among some grass-roots Democrats in the state if the DSCC is seen as being too heavy-handed in the candidate selection process.

“If the bigfoot of the DSCC kicks up too much dust in people’s eyes, it could create an ‘us versus them’ feeling among many in the party,” Monahan said.

Monahan cautioned the DSCC that the Land of Enchantment is not Ohio, where Schumer last cycle successfully pushed Senate candidate Paul Hackett (D) out of the primary and cleared the field for now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), or Pennsylvania, where the primary field was cleared in the previous cycle for now-Sen. Bob Casey (D).

Democrats generally do not believe the move by some in their party to push out Chavez will create a Democratic rift along ethnic lines. Forty percent of voters in New Mexico are Hispanic, yet none of the current Congressional delegation is, suggesting the state does not vote along ethnic lines. Additionally, Monahan said Chavez’s relationship with the Hispanic community is dicey, thanks to his tenure as mayor.

Multiple Democrats interviewed for this story described Chavez as stubborn and speculated that Udall’s entry into the primary would not prompt him to exit the race. They attributed the slight he perceives to have received from Schumer in particular as motivating him to remain in the race.

But one Washington, D.C.-based Democrat familiar with New Mexico said Chavez will have a tough time raising money for a primary contest with Udall — especially in the nation’s capital where Schumer can exert his influence.

This Democrat believes Chavez knows this, and also knows that he runs the risk of losing badly to Udall, and as such is angling for a way to save face and transition himself into the race for the Democratic-leaning, Albuquerque-area 1st district seat being vacated by Wilson.

Although Chavez has assembled an impressive finance team full of Richardson and Denish allies, Udall closed the third quarter with $801,562 in his Congressional account, giving him a significant head start over the mayor, who only began raising money for the Senate race in October.

One source who works in Santa Fe and knows all the players in the Senate race said Udall may be putting off his formal announcement to give Chavez sufficient time to exit the race gracefully.

“What I think will probably happen is that Udall polling will come out showing him way ahead,” the source said. “He’s not reconsidering, he’s in. The reason he’s reconsidering — Tom’s unusual, he’s kind and gentle — and tenacious, too.

“He’s trying to give Marty a face-saving way to get out, but if he doesn’t I fully believe he’s prepared to get in and crush him. I think some other heavy hitters in the Democratic Party in New Mexico are telling Marty that the numbers aren’t there for him, why doesn’t he run for the Heather Wilson seat, which he can win?”

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