Politico is reporting that New Mexico senator Jeff Bingaman is set to announce that he won’t seek reelection in 2012, setting up yet a third open seat race in the southwest. This one is a bit more of a stretch for Republicans–New Mexico is a swing state with a bluish tint–but not impossible if the GOP has a good year, and if our presidential nominee does well enough in the state. If these rumors prove true, the two most likely Democratic candidates are Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich, the state’s two Democratic congressmen. Heinrich in particular is considered a rising star by national Democrats, and–if I recall correctly–could have the ability to self-finance. So, if Bingaman is really out, my money is on Heinrich to be Democrats’ nominee.
On the Republican side, a variety of factors could come into play, depending on who runs. Unquestionably, based on recent polling at least, Republicans’ strongest candidate would be former governor Gary Johnson. Johnson performs best against both Heinrich and Lujan in head-to-head match-ups. A more likely candidate is former representative Heather Wilson, who ran for and lost the senate nomination in 2008 against Steve Pearce. My guess is that there will be considerable pressure on Pearce, from both the NRSC and NRCC, not to run again, and to hold down NM-02, giving Wilson (or perhaps Johnson) a clear shot. Another potentially interesting candidate would be Lieutenant-Governor John Sanchez. Though he’s new to his job, Sanchez’s profile (Hispanic former businessman) could help make him an intriguing candidate for this race. From an electoral perspective, however, the ideal scenario would be for Gary Johnson to give up his presidential race for a winnable senate race against Martin Heinrich, and for Heather Wilson to have a go at retaking her old house seat in an open-seat race. If Wilson is determined to run for the senate (likely) and Johnson is unwilling to come home and take a crack at it (a virtual certainty), the best scenario is probably for 2010 candidate John Barela to take a shot at NM-01 as an open seat. As I recall, Barela ran a pretty good campaign, but couldn’t prevail against Heinrich’s gobs of money. Barela might do better in an open race. I also don’t want to throw too much cold water on a Heather Wilson candidacy. While I’m not convinced Wilson can beat Heinrich, I’m not convinced she can’t either, under the right circumstances. She’s a good campaigner, who managed to beat a statewide office-holder (Patricia Madrid I believe) in the tough 2006 environment. If she can get Pearce to endorse her early on and win the primary, Wilson could make a real race of it in the general. In any event, look for this open-seat race to be one of the most closely watched contests of 2012, if caliber candidates get in on both sides.