So far, the politician with the best chance of succeeding Congresswoman Deb Haaland is on the sidelines.
If that’s where state Attorney General Hector Balderas stays, a special congressional election might become a scrum with a dozen or more candidates.
But if Balderas jumps in, he would be a heavy favorite and the field would shrink.
He has two things every announced candidate lacks: dominant name recognition and a base that reaches every neighborhood in the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District.
A Democrat, Balderas has won four consecutive statewide elections. He served as state auditor from 2007-14, and he has been attorney general since 2015.
In between, Balderas ran a halfhearted campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Martin Heinrich, then the 1st District congressman, trounced Balderas in the Democratic primary. Why Balderas bothered with that Senate race remains a puzzle, though it flagged his ambition for a federal office.
Balderas decided against running for the open U.S. Senate seat this year. Entering the race would have pitted Balderas in a primary against Congressman Ben Ray Luján, now the senator-elect.
Balderas, 47, said family responsibilities precluded him from running. He stood with his 20-year-old daughter, Arianna, who has Down syndrome, and said he couldn’t take on the grinding travel inherent in a Western senator’s job.
But travel between Washington and the 1st Congressional District is much easier. In geography, it is by far the smallest of New Mexico’s three districts.
Balderas might find the congressional race inviting for another reason.
State law bars him from seeking a third consecutive term as attorney general in 2022. That could leave him without a public office for the first time in two decades.
He has ample time to consider running for Congress in a special election next year.
Haaland, nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to lead the Interior Department, wouldn’t have to resign from Congress until senators confirmed her for the Cabinet. That would take at least a few weeks.
In his many campaigns, Balderas has made much of his impoverished boyhood in Wagon Mound, a village in the 3rd Congressional District. He’s told a by-the-bootstraps story of becoming a lawyer, a state representative, state auditor and attorney general.
Now Balderas lives in Albuquerque and is registered to vote in the 1st Congressional District, where the attorney general has an office.
With a long record in public life, Balderas has made his share of gaffes.
Most notably, he was weak in prosecuting then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran on public corruption charges. Balderas charged Duran with 65 crimes, then let her plead guilty to two felonies and four misdemeanors.
The worst part was Balderas didn’t seek any prison time for Duran, who embezzled campaign money and doctored public records to cover her tracks.
State District Judge T. Glenn Ellington sentenced Duran to 30 days in jail, leniency that troubled many people but gave Balderas a bit of cover.
Balderas performed better in prosecutions of former Democratic state Sens. Phil Griego and Richard Martinez.
Balderas’ staff convicted Griego on public corruption charges, including bribery and fraud. Griego was paroled after 15 months in a prison for aged or infirm inmates.
Martinez was a sitting senator when he injured two people while driving drunk in Española. Balderas’ prosecutors convicted Martinez at trial, then argued for a lengthy jail term. Instead, state District Judge Francis Mathew sentenced Martinez to five days in jail.
Three Democrats already have announced they’re running for Congress if Haaland’s seat opens. Two are state legislators — Rep. Melanie Stansbury and Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez. The other is trial lawyer Randi McGinn.
More Democrats are considering the race. State Rep. Javier Martínez is one of them.
Rep. Martínez and his wife have two young children. A move to Washington would take the kids away from two sets of grandparents. Martínez said he and his family will spend a couple of weeks deciding whether a congressional run makes sense for them.
As it stands, there would be no primary elections to nominate candidates to replace Haaland. Instead, central committee members of qualified political parties would choose nominees.
A few state legislators are working on a bill to change the law. They want a public election instead of a closed-door coronation.
If Balderas wants the congressional seat, he’s the front-runner under either system. Without him, it’s a race where even unknowns and newcomers would believe they had a shot at making it to Washington.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.