Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall announced Monday he will not seek re-election to a third term in 2020, setting the stage for a 30-year run in elected office to draw to a close and touching off what could be a wild race to determine his successor.
A Democrat who is the senior member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, Udall was seen as a heavy favorite to win re-election next year to a new six-year term.
His decision to step down after his current term expires could reshape New Mexico’s political landscape, as multiple Democrats and Republicans are likely to express interest in the open seat.
“I’m confident that we could run a strong campaign next year to earn a third term, because of all the work you and I have done together, along with my wife, Jill, and my incredibly dedicated staff,” Udall said in a statement.
“But the worst thing anyone in public office can do is believe the office belongs to them, rather than to the people they represent,” he added. “That’s why I’m announcing today I won’t be seeking re-election next year.”
Udall, 70, also said he does not necessarily plan to retire and is seeking new ways “to serve New Mexico and our country after I finish this term.” He did not specify what that might mean.
The son of former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the senator was elected New Mexico’s attorney general in 1990 after two unsuccessful bids for Congress.
After two terms as attorney general, Tom Udall won election in 1998 to the northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District. He then was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008, easily beating Republican Steve Pearce in that year’s general election.
Udall was re-elected to the Senate in 2014 and considered running for governor last year.
In his Monday statement, he said he sees his remaining 21 months in the Senate as an opportunity.
“Without the distraction of another campaign, I can get so much more done to help reverse the damage done to our planet, end the scourge of war, and to stop this president’s assault on our democracy and our communities,” he said.
Udall said he will get to work immediately on “three real crises that are happening right now” – climate change, expanding clean energy and protecting public lands and forests.
During his time in the U.S. Senate, Udall has focused largely on environmental and campaign finance transparency issues. He also played a key role in 2016 legislation that rewrote the nation’s 40-year-old chemical regulation laws and in the passing of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which preserved more than 275,000 acres as wilderness area in the state this month.
Udall also emerged as a leading critic of President Donald Trump, telling state lawmakers in a January speech that “I have never been so worried about our democracy.”
He introduced legislation in the Senate that would have blocked Trump’s national emergency declaration regarding the border. The bill was passed by Congress but was vetoed by the president on March 15.
Udall’s retirement from the Senate could mean less clout for New Mexico in Washington, D.C., said longtime political observer Brian Sanderoff.
“It will be a loss from a seniority standpoint,” Sanderoff told the Journal. “Whoever replaces him, whether it be a Democrat or a Republican, will be starting out as a freshman.”
But he also said the allure of a U.S. Senate race with no incumbent will likely attract a crowded field of candidates, adding, “Vacant U.S. Senate seats don’t come along every day.”
New Mexico went 36 years without an open U.S. Senate seat – during the tenures of Democrat Jeff Bingaman and the late Pete Domenici, a Republican – but will now have its third open race in a 12-year period that began in 2008.
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., Attorney General Hector Balderas and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver are among the Democrats who could decide to run for Udall’s seat.
Luján, the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House, would have to give up his House seat in order to run for U.S. Senate, unlike Balderas and Toulouse Oliver.
“I am humbled by the outpouring of support I received today,” Luján said Monday. “In the weeks to come, I will speak with my family, New Mexicans, and supporters about the opportunity to serve our state in the U.S. Senate.”
Toulouse Oliver, a former Bernalillo County clerk who easily won re-election last year as secretary of state, also suggested she was weighing whether to launch a run.
“The future – in politics and in life – is often unpredictable, but my commitment to serving the people of New Mexico is unwavering,” Toulouse Oliver said. “As a result, every decision I have made and will make about my work for our state will be based on how I can best use my skills and experience to move New Mexico forward.”
For his part, Balderas said Monday’s focus should be on Udall, saying he was grateful for the outgoing senator’s service and their work together on key issues.
“After discussions with my wife and family, I will provide updates at the appropriate time,” added Balderas, who also ran for U.S. Senate in 2012 but lost in a collegial primary against U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.
On the Republican side, a spokesperson for state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce, a longtime congressman who ran for governor last year, said Monday that it was too early for him to make a decision.
Former Lt. Gov. John Sanchez has also been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate, and others could also enter the fray.
National Republican Senate Committee Communications Director Jesse Hunt called Udall’s decision an opportunity for a GOP candidate.
“The Democratic Party’s lurch toward socialism has even longtime party leaders running for the hills,” Hunt said. “The people of New Mexico deserve a Senator who will fight for more jobs, lower taxes, and safer communities and we look forward to fielding a strong candidate in the New Mexico Senate race.”
But Sanderoff said Republicans will face a steep challenge trying to win the seat in a presidential election year, as such election cycles typically feature higher Democratic voter turnout than non-presidential election years.
One potential candidate who has ruled out a run is Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.
“While it’s an honor to be considered for the Senate seat, I am committed to the people of Albuquerque and making a difference on the challenges we face here every day,” Keller said Monday. “There is nothing more critical to me right now than driving down crime, addressing homelessness, and reviving our economy.”
“Burqueños elected me to take on these fights,” he added. “We’re starting to make progress and I’ll keep fighting by their side to make a lasting impact.”
U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small has also been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate, but Torres Small’s office said the first-term congresswoman did not have a comment about the speculation.
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.