Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., had been mentioned as a possible successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after becoming the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House earlier this year.
Instead, Luján will be giving up his post as assistant speaker in a bid to succeed fellow Democrat Tom Udall in the U.S. Senate.
Luján announced his intention to run for the seat on social media on Monday, one week after Udall said he would not seek election to a third term in 2020.
Luján’s decision makes him the early front-runner in the race for the U.S. Senate seat, while also setting off a new round of political intrigue regarding the northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District seat that Luján has held since 2009.
Luján told the Journal it was not an easy decision to give up his seat in the House, where he is the highest-ranking Hispanic member of Congress.
“I made the decision after talking to my colleagues (in leadership)” and family members, Luján said. “Speaker Pelosi is an amazing friend and an amazing mentor.”
The son of former New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján, who died in 2012, the younger Luján said he feels he can be a more effective leader for the people of New Mexico in the Senate.
He also said he was frustrated that the House has passed legislation such as gun-safety measures and voter reform only to see the legislation languish in the Senate.
Luján said the Democratic-controlled House is working to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, “has announced he wants to kill the Affordable Care Act.”
“I’m running to stand up to Mitch McConnell, not just to flip the Senate,” Luján said.
He cited his experience working on legislation addressing opioid addiction and the farm bill. Luján said he would continue to work on health care issues and infrastructure for rural areas, including expanding the availability of broadband internet service in the state.
He said he wanted to be a “champion” for New Mexico in the Senate, like Udall and former Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Dennis Chavez.
Luján is the early favorite in what could be a crowded Democratic field. His position in House leadership could also give him a fundraising advantage over his rivals.
University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Luján’s early announcement could scare off some potential challengers from entering the race.
“He’s sitting in the driver’s seat,” Sanchez said. “I can’t see too many people out there who would have a bona fide chance at beating him.”
The six-term congressman, who easily defeated two opponents in last year’s general election, might also get financial backing from such out-of-state groups as Latino Victory Project, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee that urged him to run, Sanchez said.
New Mexico has not had a Hispanic member of the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years.
But Luján’s big jump might not ward off all challengers.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and first-term U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., have announced they are considering a run for the seat. U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is also reportedly mulling over a bid.
A spokeswoman for Toulouse Oliver said she had spoken to Luján before his announcement, but said the announcement would not affect Toulouse Oliver’s decision to run.
For his part, Luján said he welcomed the competition.
“I think debate is good for our party,” he said.
He also didn’t think potentially facing Haaland and Torres Small would affect their ability to work on issues in the House during the rest of their terms. He and Haaland both told the Journal that the three have worked well together over the past several months.
But Luján said he felt like he was “the strongest candidate” based not only on his experience in the House, but also his past experience as chairman of the Public Regulation Commission, where he worked on renewable energy issues.
Luján said he also believes having held a leadership position in the House could aid him in the Senate.
“We work with our colleagues in the Senate,” Luján said. “I know them personally.”
GOP sees opportunity
Democrats are favored to win the seat, as Republicans have not won a Senate race in New Mexico since 2002.
But Republicans still see an opportunity, because it’s rare for U.S. Senate seats in New Mexico not to feature an incumbent.
A spokeswoman for state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said Monday that the former congressman – who lost a bid for the seat to Udall in 2008 – was still considering running.
She also said Pearce was seeking out other potentially strong candidates to run for the seat.
“Given the Democrats’ progressive trend, they will likely nominate someone who is far too liberal to represent New Mexico,” Pearce said in a statement after Udall’s announcement last week. “As chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, I can unequivocally state that our candidate will provide a clear contrast with anyone whom the Democrats recruit to run.”
Albuquerque contractor Mick Rich, who ran for the U.S. Senate last year against Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has also expressed interest in running for Udall’s seat, and other candidates could emerge in the coming months.
New Mexico’s primary election for the seat is 14 months away – on June 2, 2020. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 3, 2020.