SANTA FE – A day after President-elect Joe Biden picked New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland as his Interior secretary, there was a budding political frenzy over Haaland’s Albuquerque-based congressional seat.
A special election would be called several months after Haaland vacates office – assuming she wins Senate confirmation – and there’s expected to be no shortage of interest among Democrats and Republicans in running for the seat.
It would lead to a rapid and unique campaign. Which in some ways is already getting started.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver – who herself is interested in the position – would have to call a special election to fill Haaland’s seat between 77 and 91 days of it being vacated, under a state law that was revised in 2019.
There would be no primary elections. Instead, the political parties’ central committees would meet behind closed doors and nominate their own candidates at least 56 days before the election.
An essentially two-month campaign would favor a candidate who already has name recognition, said Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff.
The likely voters would also be different than those in a typical election, he said.
“This is the only thing on the ballot so turnout will probably be lower,” said Sanderoff, who is the president of Research & Polling Inc. “And it will be more of an older voter because younger voters tend to participate in lower levels in low-turnout, special elections.”
Once a swing district that leaned Republican, for the past decade New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District has been held by Democrats who cruised to victory and used it as a stepping stone.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham were each elected to multiple terms before leaving the position to run for their current jobs.
The district includes most of Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is located, and all of Torrance County. It also represents small slices of Sandoval, Valencia and Santa Fe counties. A Republican candidate hasn’t come within 15 percentage points of their Democrat opponent in a CD1 race since 2010.
Despite the congressional district’s recent partisan lurch, several Republicans were quick to say they were contemplating a run.
Eddy Aragon, CEO of the Rock of Talk radio station, said he is considering a run for the Republican nomination. He said he has broad name recognition, and he was once a Democrat, giving him an understanding of voters across the spectrum.
“I have a strong brand of conservatism,” he said, “but I would also appeal better than anybody else to the crossover vote.”
Michelle Garcia Holmes, a retired Albuquerque police officer who ran and lost to Haaland by 16 percentage points in November, said she will be throwing her hat into the ring to again be the Republican candidate.
“Coming off a whole year of running for that position, we have a whole team in place and we have a little bit of a campaign war chest left,” she said. “So absolutely I will seek the nomination if it opens.”
Mark Ronchetti, who posted a strong showing in losing to Democrat Ben Ray Luján in this year’s race for an open U.S. Senate seat, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, but a GOP source indicated Ronchetti would not be running.
Ronchetti could not immediately be reached Friday about his thinking on the race.
On the Democratic side, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said he had been asked about seeking the position, but suggested he was leaning against making a run.
“The work being done in Congress is important, I’m flattered lots of folks have asked but it has a different kind of impact,” he said in a statement. “Being the mayor of my hometown means that I get to dig in and make daily impact – especially in this time of crisis when leadership is so needed. I’m not sure about that trade.”
State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who came in third in a six-way Democratic primary won by Haaland in 2018, acknowledged interest in the race, saying Friday she was “seriously considering it.”
But Sedillo Lopez also said she was committed to participating in the 60-day legislative session scheduled to begin next month.
Two other Albuquerque state lawmakers – Democratic Reps. Javier Martinez and Melanie Stansbury – have also been mentioned as potential candidates.
Stansbury, who was just reelected to her second term in the House, confirmed Friday she was looking at the potential of running for the CD1 seat once Haaland is confirmed, while Martinez said he would make a decision in due time.
Another candidate could be Victor Reyes, the governor’s legislative director, who said Friday he was mulling over the race after getting encouraging phone calls.
And Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, who also ran for the CD1 seat in 2018, told the Journal the race for an open seat would be “definitely interesting.”
“I’ll take a new look, but I think Haaland will have the ability to influence the Democratic nominee if she chooses to endorse a successor,” he said. “We should see whether that’s in her plans.”
Already hold office
The race could also feature several candidates who currently hold statewide office.
State Auditor Brian Colón, a Democrat who ran for mayor of Albuquerque in 2017, said it was an exciting time for the state and said he’s been getting many calls urging him to run for Haaland’s seat.
“As I weigh this crucial decision I remain focused on serving New Mexicans,” said Colón, whose current term as auditor runs through 2022.
Meanwhile, Heather Brewer, who managed Toulouse Oliver’s most recent campaign for secretary of state, said the state’s top election official was “seriously considering” a run, noting Toulouse Oliver had grown up in the district.
“Maggie will make her decision public in the coming days and hopes that all New Mexicans enjoy a safe and happy holiday season,” Brewer said.
Like many other potential candidates, Toulouse Oliver also congratulated Haaland for her historic nomination to be the nation’s next Interior secretary.
If confirmed, Haaland would become the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are scheduled to formally introduce Haaland – and other members of their climate team – during a Saturday news conference in Delaware.
Jessica Dyer and Dan McKay contributed to this report.