In 107 years of statehood, New Mexico has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. Maggie Toulouse Oliver believed she would be the first.
She changed her view this week in the middle of a campaign, quitting the Democratic primary race against U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
Toulouse Oliver initially provided a sanitized explanation, saying she dropped out because Luján had followed her by veering left on several issues, including the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
But candidates don’t enter a race to surrender. Toulouse Oliver told me a number of factors contributed to her decision to withdraw, and lack of money was at the top of that list.
“I’d be lying if I said funding wasn’t a major component,” she said Thursday in an interview. “What would have been lacking was the ability to communicate the way we wanted to.”
She wasn’t referring only to television advertising, which candidates in statewide races treat as an expensive necessity. Her hope also waned of assembling a grassroots campaign that could reach voters at their doorstep.
“I looked at the path to victory and what would have been required,” she said.
Toulouse Oliver did not like what she saw. To separate herself from Luján, she faced the prospect of going negative to take down a better-financed opponent.
“That wasn’t the kind of campaign I wanted to run,” she said.
Toulouse Oliver already has a demanding job as New Mexico’s secretary of state, an office that oversees elections, among other responsibilities. Better to focus on work, she said, than attempt to pull an upset on a shoestring budget.
She called it quits and endorsed Luján.
Her withdrawal makes it likely that men will continue representing New Mexico in the Senate for at least the next three decades.
Toulouse Oliver’s exit clears the way for Luján to receive the Democratic nomination without competition. Two political weaklings, both men and both retreads from losing campaigns last year, are running for the Senate on the Republican side.
Luján, who has led a charmed political life, will cruise to victory in the general election unless he commits a blunder.
He is only 47. Fellow Democrat Martin Heinrich, who will become New Mexico’s senior senator upon Tom Udall’s retirement after the general election, is a year older. They stand a good chance of remaining in the Senate until they’re in their 70s or 80s.
Toulouse Oliver didn’t base her campaign on gender politics, which are always bothersome. The idea of supporting someone simply because she’s a woman is no more appealing than the tradition of only men serving in the Senate.
Had she been able to stay in the race, she might have defined herself as the underdog who overcame more obstacles than Luján could imagine.
Toulouse Oliver had none of the natural advantages that propelled Luján’s career. A single mother at a young age, she ascended in the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office to become its top official. Then she twice won election as secretary of state.
Luján’s path in politics was slower but easier. His father, also named Ben Luján, was speaker of the state House of Representatives. He jump-started Ben Ray’s political career in 2004.
Ben Ray was 31 and still without a college degree. A $90,000-a-year seat was open on the state Public Regulation Commission. He decided to run for it.
The job was highly technical, and Ben Ray wasn’t the best-qualified candidate. But he had more political clout than any of his opponents.
His dad’s close ally, then-Gov. Bill Richardson, crafted a statement for Ben Ray to use in his campaign.
“Ben R. Luján will be an outstanding member of the PRC,” Richardson stated. “He is a man of the people who will bring a fresh and fair voice to the PRC as a native Northern New Mexican. I trust him in this critical race, which is so important to the future of our state.”
Ben Ray won. Then he made something of it.
Jason Marks, one of the two best PRC members I’ve seen, rated Luján as a capable and earnest member of the PRC.
Bob Perls, who finished second to Luján in the Democratic primary for the PRC seat, had a similar assessment.
“He’s been somebody who exceeded expectations,” Perls told me.
Luján was completing his term on the PRC when Northern New Mexico’s congressional seat opened. He soon became the best-known candidate in a crowded primary field.
Luján won again and headed to Congress at age 35.
“He has been very fortunate,” Toulouse Oliver said.
In the Senate race, Luján has risked alienating voters with his relentless pleas for money. Some were laced with wild stories. For instance, one of Luján’s solicitations falsely claimed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had “announced he raised $2.1 million to defeat me.”
Republican McConnell’s fundraising had nothing to do with Luján. It was for his own Senate race in Kentucky.
A reader emailed me Thursday to say he’s tired of Luján’s solicitations.
“There is no one any more interested than I am in seeing the Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate in the 2020 election,” the man wrote. “But aside from being annoyed by the number and rhetoric of these particular emails, I am thinking that my money could be put to better use if given to candidates whose 2020 election is not as secure as I am assuming Mr. Luján’s to be. With Maggie Toulouse Oliver now dropping out of the race, I imagine that it won’t cost Mr. Lujan a lot of money to get through the primary.”
Luján could pinch every nickel and squeeze every dime while winning the Senate race. But his fundraising will always be full speed ahead.
Money was part of his formula for eliminating Toulouse Oliver as a competitor.
She said Democratic Party leaders exerted no pressure to get her to withdraw. Instead, it came down mostly to cash, or lack of it.
Luján had enough to be the comfortable front-runner. Toulouse Oliver didn’t want to throw stones from behind.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.