Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver officially announced her campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat Wednesday, setting up a heavyweight Democratic primary clash next year against U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
If elected, Toulouse Oliver would be the first woman to represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate – though the state has elected two consecutive female governors – and her chances at winning the 2020 Democratic nomination could hinge in part on female voters.
“We need more women in Washington,” Toulouse Oliver said in announcing her campaign. “It’s that simple. We’ve seen a dramatic change in the House of Representatives; now it’s time to change the face of the Senate by electing the first woman senator from New Mexico.”
Toulouse Oliver also said she would fight for a progressive agenda in the U.S. Senate, indicating support for proposals to combat climate change, expand government-funded health care programs for all elderly citizens, reduce student loan debt and ensure gender pay equity.
“We all deserve a Washington that’s not driven by malice, but instead is driven by hope and a vision to make things better,” she said in a two-minute web video in which she officially announced her campaign after weeks of hinting at entering the race.
Next year’s U.S. Senate race will not feature an incumbent; Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said last month that he would not seek election to a third consecutive six-year term in 2020.
Luján moved quickly earlier this month to jump into the race, prompting several other potential Democratic candidates to take a pass.
But Toulouse Oliver’s decision to enter the contest means two high-profile candidates with proven records of winning elections will – barring any changes – face off in June 2020.
In an interview, Toulouse Oliver said she worked for former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s re-election campaign in 1994, shortly after graduating from high school, and has long felt a calling to run for the U.S. Senate.
She said she was not deterred by the prospect of a contested primary race against a well-funded opponent, adding that her campaign will not be focused on Luján.
“I don’t see myself as running against Congressman Luján – I’m running for the U.S. Senate,” she said.
Luján will have a big financial head start in the race, as he reported this month having roughly $634,000 in his federal campaign account. In contrast, Toulouse Oliver will not be able to use her state campaign funds in the race, but she said she’s up for the challenge.
“I’m very used to raising large amounts of money in challenging environments,” she told the Journal.
Longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff said Toulouse Oliver is well-known in the Albuquerque area due to her tenure as Bernalillo County clerk. He also said she could benefit from the fact that more female voters generally participate in Democratic primary elections than male voters.
But Luján’s national fundraising connections might play a significant role in a race that could also be affected by high turnout for the hotly contested Democratic presidential nomination, he said.
“We’ve got two formidable candidates vying for the Democratic Party nomination,” said Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc.
Toulouse Oliver was first elected secretary of state in 2016 after former Secretary of State Dianna Duran resigned from office and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds to fuel a gambling habit.
She easily defeated two opponents to win re-election last year and would not have to give up her job as secretary of state to run for U.S. Senate next year. But the Republican Party of New Mexico called late Wednesday for her to step down as secretary of state to eliminate any potential concerns about her office overseeing the primary election while she’s also a candidate.
As secretary of state, Toulouse Oliver has enacted rules requiring more disclosure of New Mexico political spending. She also pushed during this year’s 60-day session for a law allowing same-day voter registration, though it won’t take effect until the 2022 election cycle.
However, some of Toulouse Oliver’s actions as secretary of state have prompted legal challenges, including her August 2018 decision to bring back straight-party voting. That move was ultimately blocked by the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Luján has already landed several high-profile endorsements in the Senate race, including backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and fellow U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who also considered running for the Senate seat but decided against doing so.
Luján also announced endorsements from other New Mexico Democratic women, including former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and ex-Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
Luján told the Journal earlier this month that he welcomed competition.
“I think debate is good for our party,” he said.
Luján also said 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.
“Senate seats are earned through hard work, grass-roots support, and presenting the best vision for New Mexico to voters, and we welcome the ability to highlight Congressman Luján’s record of success and make our case to New Mexicans,” Luján’s campaign said in a Wednesday statement.
He is spending this week on a listening tour while Congress is on the second week of a two-week break. His campaign said he planned to visit 19 counties.
Toulouse Oliver also plans to travel the state in the coming weeks, with campaign stops planned in Las Cruces, Rio Rancho, Silver City, Gallup and Española.
Former Trump administration official Gavin Clarkson of Las Cruces is the only Republican candidate in the race.