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Does New Mexico’s future lie in D.C.?

A grin and a chuckle.

That was Sen. Tom Udall’s initial reaction Friday when I asked him at the U.S. Capitol about a tip I’d received that he is considering a run for governor of New Mexico in two years.

“Well, I only deal with one election at a time – the next election before us is the one I’m focusing on,” Udall said predictably, referring to the 2016 election cycle, in which is he is not running for office. “We have a presidential election. We have all of our state offices up, and that’s what I’m staying focused on.”

Then, the senator leaned in slightly and made it clear he isn’t ruling a gubernatorial run out.

“I will tell you, a lot of people in my visits back to New Mexico urge me to do that, but I’m staying focused on the job right now,” Udall said.

The 2018 governor’s race is still a couple of years away. But that isn’t stopping New Mexicans from speculating about who might replace Gov. Susana Martinez.

It’s not surprising to think that Udall – who has been in Washington as a congressman and U.S. senator since 1998 – might want to come home to beautiful Santa Fe and take up residence in the governor’s mansion as a coda to his long political career.

Just two years into his second six-year term in the Senate, Udall could run for governor without giving up his Senate seat, which doesn’t expire until 2020. If he won the 2018 governor’s race, he would appoint his Senate replacement. That kind of power is alluring to any politician.

Of course, you don’t have to be in Washington to run. Martinez, after all, was district attorney in Las Cruces.

The names of Attorney General Hector Balderas and State Auditor Tim Keller frequently surface in discussions about who might be interested among Democrats.

And on the GOP side of the fence in New Mexico, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez both come up frequently.

As for New Mexico’s congressional delegation, I got to wondering who else might be interested in the governor’s job. I thought of Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham first, because I’ve also been hearing a lot of speculation that the Albuquerque Democrat is interested in the job. Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, sent me a statement after I asked him about it Friday.

“The congresswoman believes New Mexico would benefit from a diverse field of candidates for governor in 2018,” Gallegos said.

Translation: Lujan Grisham – who is 56 – definitely isn’t ruling it out, either.

What about Rep. Steve Pearce? The southern New Mexico Republican ran for statewide office in 2008 – for the Senate seat vacated by Pete Domenici – and lost to Udall by almost 40 points.

But that year featured a huge Democratic wave capped by President Barack Obama’s immense popularity. Pearce’s backers are convinced he could make a much stronger run for statewide office in 2018, a non-presidential election year.

Pearce, the oldest member of the delegation at 68, has long had his eye on a statewide position, and he has proved himself a strong fundraiser. But critics contend he’s too conservative to carry the state. I’d say there’s about a 50-50 chance he runs for governor in 2018.

That brings us to Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Sen. Martin Heinrich, the youngest members of the delegation and, in my opinion, the least likely to run for governor.

Luján, in just four terms in the U.S. House, has vaulted into a national leadership position with his appointment last year as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. National Democratic leaders view the collegial, 43-year-old Hispanic as a future face of the party. He’s unlikely to jump off of that rising star to run for governor back in New Mexico, based on conversations I’ve had with people close to him.

Heinrich, 44, is in his first term in the U.S. Senate and seems to genuinely enjoy his work on important national issues related to intelligence, energy and armed services. The former congressman has boosted his national profile considerably in just four years in the Senate. Also, he moved his wife and two young boys to Washington two years ago, and it could be disruptive to move them again. But Heinrich does love to camp and hunt – and there isn’t much of that inside the Beltway.

Of course, it’s all just a parlor game at this point. When I asked Udall about a hypothetical gubernatorial primary race that pitted him against Lujan Grisham, he laughed.

“Anybody can run, right?” he said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Journal reporter Michael Coleman in Washington, D.C., at mcoleman@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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