WASHINGTON – Sen. Tom Udall has won eight straight U.S. House and Senate elections, but the New Mexico Democrat insists he’s taking nothing for granted in his bid for a second Senate term.
“I don’t get into these things without running scared,” Udall said during a Journal interview in his Washington office. “I go out there and work as hard as I can and try to earn again the support of my constituents.”
Udall, 66, faces Republican Allen Weh, a 71-year-old Albuquerque aviation executive and retired Marine colonel, in New Mexico’s Nov. 4 general election.
Udall, now the senior member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, succeeded Republican Sen. Pete Domenici when Domenici retired in 2009 due to health problems.
During his decade of service in the U.S. House, Udall – long popular with environmentalists and other left-leaning groups – consistently ranked among the more liberal members of that chamber, according to independent analysis by Washington-based publications, such as the National Journal and the Congressional Quarterly.
In his six years in the Senate, Udall has moderated his record and now ranks as the 32nd most liberal U.S. senator, out of 100, based on an assessment of his 2013 voting record, according to the National Journal.
Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said Udall has broadened his political profile during his time in the Senate, as evidenced by his outspoken support of military veterans, the state’s nuclear weapons labs and even gun owners’ rights. Atkeson, referring to Udall’s political base, pointed out that New Mexico as a whole is much less liberal than Santa Fe and most of northern New Mexico.
“He’s been very adept at running a moderate statewide campaign,” she said. “I think he does a lot of things to be more moderate and attentive to the voters in the state.”
In his first year, Udall snared a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a powerful post Domenici had held for years. The panel oversees billions of dollars in federal spending for New Mexico. Udall has made his membership on the spending committee the linchpin of his 2014 campaign.
“I’m in a position now with the committees I serve on – particularly appropriations and how powerful it is – to make an impact,” Udall said.
Although federal spending in New Mexico has dropped dramatically since the onset of the 2008 recession, the senator contends his appropriations perch has helped him stave off potentially deep budget cuts to New Mexico’s military installations, and Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, which employ thousands of New Mexicans.
“The labs and bases are tremendously important to New Mexico,” Udall said. “Members of Congress have tried to cut programs (at the labs) or even shut them down. We’ve stepped in and stabilized the situation.”
Both labs’ budgets are, indeed, relatively stable compared with other federal programs, which have suffered cuts as a result of the 2013 budget sequestration and overall fiscal belt tightening in Washington.
Despite the restricted budget climate, Udall persuaded his colleagues to provide full funding for a project to extend the life of the B61 bomb at Los Alamos and Sandia in the 2015 budget proposal.
However, since Udall was elected to the Senate in 2008, LANL has lost about 1,000 jobs, which the senator attributed to the lab’s evolving mission.
“Part of that is the mission being a little bit re-evaluated there,” he said.
Meanwhile, Udall is on the campaign trail and on television in New Mexico touting his ability to bring home the bacon for the labs.
But not all New Mexicans are convinced that pumping billions of dollars into nuclear weapons programs and military installations is the best use of federal resources.
Greg Mello, executive director of the independent, nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, argues that the state sees little private-sector job spinoff from the billions the federal government invests in the labs. He said the state would be better off if Udall used his power to bolster education and clean energy initiatives.
“The more time he spends on the labs, the less time he has to become an effective leader for the state,” said Mello, who was careful to stress that he wasn’t advocating for or against Udall’s re-election because of his group’s nonprofit status.
Udall pointed to his position on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and particularly its military construction subcommittee, as a boon for New Mexico.
“We are doing a significant amount – and have been doing for years and years – of military construction on almost all of our bases,” the senator said. “Almost every year, there is a major multimillion-dollar project at our bases.”
Udall said that construction could be invaluable if Congress contemplates another Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the coming year.
Udall’s rise to political power is well-documented.
The senator hails from one of America’s famous political families. His late father, Stewart Udall, was a congressman and U.S. interior secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His uncle, Morris K. “Mo” Udall, served in the U.S. House, and his cousin, Mark Udall, is a fellow Democratic U.S. senator.
Tom Udall and his wife, Jill Cooper Udall, live on Capitol Hill in Washington but return to their home in Santa Fe regularly.
Udall, based out of Santa Fe, first entered New Mexico politics in 1982, when he ran unsuccessfully for a newly created northern New Mexico U.S. House seat. He lost another congressional bid in 1988 and then set his sights at the state level. He was elected New Mexico attorney general in 1990 and re-elected to the office in 1994.
After eight years in the AG’s Office, Udall ran again for Congress in northern New Mexico’s 3rd District and this time he won. Udall held the post for five terms before winning election to the U.S. Senate upon Domenici’s retirement.
At the national level, Udall has grabbed headlines for his efforts to change the Senate’s rules and to force more disclosure in campaign financing.
If re-elected, he said, he will continue his so far unsuccessful quest to blunt the impact of the filibuster in the Senate, which he contends has paralyzed the chamber’s productivity. He pledged to continue his quest to alter the Senate’s rules, even if Republicans win the chamber in November.
“I’m working for reform to make sure this place produces for New Mexico,” he said. “We have a strong federal presence, and the best way for this to work is to produce budgets on time and not lurch from one crisis to another … and get actual legislation done.”
Udall has also proposed a constitutional amendment that would give Congress more authority to regulate contributions and spending by independent groups in federal elections. The proposal is a response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
The measure would require the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate, and then ratification by three-fourths of all state legislatures. Most expert observers have said the proposal stands virtually no chance, but Udall said he’ll keep working for it.
“I think people are disgusted with the Super PACs and the way campaigns are run,” he said.
John Billingsley, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, said that Udall is out of touch and that the GOP is disappointed in his fervent support of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and some environmental rules that Billingsley said limit oil and gas production in the state.
“Nowhere in the country is the distrust and dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., more prevalent than here in New Mexico,” Billingsley said. “Udall’s voting record does not support a large majority of people that contribute a great deal to our state – people that have made New Mexico what it is – people that have made me a proud New Mexican. At the end of the day, Udall has just lost touch with New Mexicans.”
Asked about New Mexico’s sluggish economy, Udall rattles off a list of initiatives he has embarked on to engage the business community and help workers.
One is his push, along with the rest of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, for the Advanced Photonics Manufacturing Consortium in Albuquerque to be recognized by the federal government as a “manufacturing community,” a designation that could make it eligible for up to $1.3 billion in future federal investment.
Udall also cited his efforts to help more than 300 workers who lost their jobs when a Chevron mine in Questa suddenly shut down this year. Udall has pressed Chevron to offer assistance and expertise to help employees find new jobs and rebuild the economy.
“The people of New Mexico face real challenges and crises and problems in their lives,” Udall said. “I’m very cognizant of that and that is what we’ve been working on the last six years. That’s the record I’m running on.”