This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.
New Mexico’s First Congressional District — which encompasses Albuquerque, its suburbs and a sparsely populated rural area to the east — swung with the political winds in the past two elections. Rep. Martin Heinrich saw a 12-point victory in 2008 to become the first Democrat to represent the seat, but in 2010 he came within four points of losing. Now, he’s vacating the seat to run for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
Of New Mexico’s three districts, the First is unusual: It’s compact. (According to Lt. Gov Diane Denish, defeated Rep. Harry Teague used to envy the First as he was driving all around southern New Mexico after flying into El Paso or Midland.) It covers the city of Albuquerque and some — but not its fastest growing — suburbs. However, Albuquerque proper grew by nearly 22 percent from 2000 to 2010.
The Cook Political Report rates the district as +5 Democrat, and a “Lean Democrat” for 2012. But Republicans held the seat since its creation in 1969 all the way until 2009. Rep. Heather Wilson — a self-described “independent” Republican who’s also now running for Senate — represented the district beginning in 1998, winning by safe margins in all years but 2006 when she won by just 875 votes. She opted to run for Senate against Tom Udall in 2008.
With Cook rating this as New Mexico’s only competitive House race for 2012 — Reps. Steve Pearce and Ben Ray Luján are considered safe — multiple candidates have lined up for the seat. Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish already decided against running for the seat.
State Sen. Eric Griego, who represents Albuquerque, announced his run for the seat in early May. “The conservative Republicans running the U.S. Congress have declared war on working families,” Griego said in his announcement.
He earned the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s first endorsement of the 2012 cycle in late June. Though no other Democratic candidates had announced at the time, the PCCC urged its supporters to donate to improve his fundraising numbers because “several conservative Blue Dogs” were thinking of running. He netted $119,000 in fundraising during an abbreviated second quarter.
An old rival of Griego’s, former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, announced his run in late June. Griego had run against Chavez from the left in his 2005 mayoral re-election, only to have Chavez outspend him 4–1 and beat him by more than 20 points.
Chavez was Mayor of Albuquerque for a total of three terms. He was mayor from 1993 to 1997 and decided not to run for a second term to challenge Gov. Gary Johnson, a race he ended up losing by 10 points. He then ran for mayor successfully in 2001 and 2005. He succeeded in repealing the term limits law and ran again in 2009. However, he drew a Democratic challenger and lost to Republican Richard Barry in a three-way race. He faced accusations of favoring city contractors and was part of a wave of incumbent fatigue during the recession.
A New Mexico Democrat told Politico that Chavez was a better fit for the “very moderate” district.” He added, “Chavez has a nice story to tell, and I think it’s helpful for Obama to have a Hispanic in that district.”
Indeed, in his announcement, Chavez said that he wanted to balance the budget and called the federal government “one of the most dysfunctional places I’ve ever seen.”
Chavez and Griego have already had spats. Over e-mail.
Chavez sent out a message to supporters assailing potential Social Security and Medicare cuts for the debt deal. “Right-wing Republicans in Washington are desperately trying to pass massive cuts to these vital programs while protecting huge tax breaks for the wealthiest few,” he wrote.
Griego contacted his supporters: “My conservative Democratic opponent in this race for Congress, Marty Chavez, sent out an e-mail on Monday calling for ‘bold progressive leadership’ — and I thought he was endorsing my campaign. But it was a campaign e-mail for himself!”
While a Chavez/Griego primary could be bruising, others have entered the race. Bernalillo County commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her run this month. She came in third in the Democratic primary in 2008.
Republicans also think that they have a decent shot at the seat. One-term Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis entered the race in early April, the day after Rep. Martin Heinrich announced he was running for Senate. He described his priorities, “to help small businesses, so they can create badly needed jobs, and to protect our nation and our people from those who wish us harm.” He raised over $101,000 in the second quarter after he announced his candidacy.
Former State Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones has also announced an exploratory committee for the seat. She gave up her seat to run for governor in 2010 but came in fourth place in the Republican primary with just three percent of the vote.
The outcome of the race also depends on whether President Obama can turn out supporters like he did in 2008. If the president wins the district by 20 points like he did in 2008, it becomes very difficult for a Republican to win. On the other hand, Wilson carried the district during 2004 and 2000 with a small majority of voters going for John Kerry and Al Gore.
Many analysts are pointing out the possibility that Democrats could retake the House but lose the Senate. If that’s the case, then they’d need to hold a district like the First. For Republicans, taking it would mean a good year for them.
This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.Tags: dan lewis, Diane Denish, eric griego, Janice Arnold-Jones, martin chavez, Martin Heinrich, WNYC