Bingaman’s retirement could change political landscape

Kevin Wilson

Jeff Bingaman’s Senate seat will be filled by another New Mexican come 2013 — whether it be Republican, Democrat or third party.

But New Mexico’s Senate clout may take years to return — if it does. Bingaman’s retirement in 2012, coupled with Pete Domenici’s 2008 retirement for health reasons, eliminates 66 years worth of Senate seniority in the matter of three election cycles.

“It’s tough to lose both of our senior senators,” Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield said. “Domenici was strong, powerful, he was well-liked, he was able to bring in things for New Mexico. It’s like that with Bingaman, as well.”

Though Bingaman’s retirement comes with plenty of time for Democrats to field a replacement, Republicans looking to flip the seat may have the advantage.

Brian Sanderoff, who heads Research and Polling of Albuquerque, said Bingaman would have likely cruised to re-election, had he chosen that path. Instead, he calls the race 50-50.

Curry County Republican Chairman Rube Render prefers those odds.

“Anybody who’s been elected to the Senate for five terms has to be an odds-on favorite,” Render said, “unless he does something so outlandish it screws things up.”

Render expects numerous candidates to show interest over the next few months, and there are already two candidates in Greg Sowards of Las Cruces and radio host William English of Alamogordo.

Election impacts could reach beyond the Senate, if history is any indication.

“When this similar circumstance occurred in ’08, it turned out to be a disaster for Republicans,” Sanderoff said. “We went from having lots of Republicans in Congress to none.”

When Domenici retired, all three of New Mexico’s House members opted to run for his Senate seat rather than keep their spots in the House. Democrat Tom Udall won the seat, and his House seat was kept in the party by Ben Ray Lujan.

Meanwhile, Republican Representatives Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson lost the race — Wilson in the primary, Pearce in the general — and were replaced, respectively, by Democrats Martin Heinrich and Harry Teague. A 3-2 Republican advantage in New Mexico’s delegation swung to a 5-0 Democratic advantage.

Sanderoff said the election of Barack Obama had a giant downticket effect for many Democrats, and it remains to be seen what impact the Republican presidential nominee will have.

“What you’re really asking for 2012,” Sanderoff said, “is, what’s the mood going to be? This doesn’t bode well for the Democrats, first of all, because it’s the Democrats’ seat that’s being vacated. There’s a chance some of those Democrats might vacate their House seat, although Pearce could do the same.”

Democrats have to defend 23 seats in 2012 to keep control of the Senate — a task that could prove difficult with the retirements from Bingaman, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia.

Charles Adams, chair of the Curry County Democratic Party, said the one silver lining is the time frame to find another candidate.

“Jeff has done a great job,” Adams said. “I think less people (than I wish) know how much he had to do with the growth of Cannon (and keeping it) open.

“He clearly wants someone that can fill his shoes, that has his same commitment. He has given adequate time for us to do a good job finding someone that will fill his shoes. If we don’t, we won’t have a Democrat.”

Primarily, the state will lose a key position on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Between Domenici and Bingaman, no matter which party controlled the Senate, there was a New Mexican senator chairing the committee.

Without Bingaman chairing the committee in 2009, Brumfield imagines there would have been a longer path toward federal authorization of the Ute Water Project. The pipeline project was authorized that year as part of an omnibus bill compiled by Bingaman.

Getting funding for the $500 million project will require more work with the Bureau of Reclamation, Brumfield said.

“Yes, we’re disappointed,” Brumfield said. “But I think whoever else is in there, they will make sure to work hard to get any authorized projects funded.”