With Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) decision to retire, another scion of a powerful southwestern political dynasty could move up to replace him — if he wants it.
Three top Democrats with New Mexico ties told TPM that Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) would be the instant frontrunner for Udall’s seat should he decide to run for it.
“I don’t see how Lujan isn’t the immediate front runner,” one Democrat who’s worked New Mexico races told TPM. “He has a substantial local infrastructure, seniority, and access to a massive donor network from his time at DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee].”
The question is whether Lujan actually wants it, however. Lujan is a member of Democratic leadership as assistant speaker, a rising star in the Democratic Party who’s close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and one of only a few members of leadership under age 70. He is viewed as a potential candidate for speaker in the coming years, along with House Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Vice Chair Katherine Clark (D-MA).
Lujan is local political royalty — his father was former New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan (D). He developed a national fundraising network during his two terms heading the DCCCC, and has plenty of goodwill from donors thanks his role in Democrats taking House control last fall.
Some New Mexico Democrats were skeptical he’d give that up for a shot at the upper chamber. He’d likely be the front-runner in any field of candidates, but there are plenty of other ambitious young Democrats in the state who could choose to run against him, and there’s no guarantee he’d beat them and win the general election.
Other Democrats who’d been seen as leaders-in-waiting got sick of waiting for Pelosi to leave and left the House, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY). But Pelosi has made it clear she won’t be around much longer.
“I do not get the sense that Ben Ray is going to leave that position. I don’t see any scenario where he does that at this point,” said one New Mexico Democrat.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) is another top-tier Democrat who locals say could be formidable should he run. He’s shown interest in the Senate before — he lost a primary to Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in 2012 — and would have a free shot at the seat since he just won reelection last fall. He’s also term-limited in 2022, and is likely looking ahead to his next job. He won reelection last fall with a 28-point margin, and was the top vote-getter in the state.
Other Democrats who could run are freshman Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM). A Senate bid might make sense for Torres Small since she just won a GOP-leaning district that will be hard to hold. But as a moderate from the state’s more lightly populated south, she would have both geographic and ideological problems in a primary. Locals are skeptical either would take the plunge, however.
On the GOP side, former Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), now the state party chair, has run for statewide office multiple times, most recently losing a gubernatorial campaign last fall, and could run again. Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block (R) is viewed as another GOP rising star. But the Hispanic-majority state has become considerably more Democratic over the past two decades, as the GOP has further alienated Latino voters. Any Republican would face a steep uphill race in the state.
Lujan advisers didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
This story was updated at 7:05 p.m. to include that Clark is a member of leadership.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham are cousins.