The secretary of state’s job is not exactly a springboard to higher office in New Mexico.
But Maggie Toulouse Oliver wants to make it one, formally jumping Wednesday into the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in a bid to become the first woman New Mexico has ever sent to the chamber.
The secretary of state’s announcement was hardly a surprise, coming in the days after her campaign formally filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for the seat Tom Udall is giving up next year.
And Toulouse Oliver, 43, faces tough competition from the only other prominent candidate in the race, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who has a big brand in New Mexico politics and the fundraising prowess to match his title of assistant speaker. Moreover, Luján’s bid comes with an appeal to the sense among plenty that New Mexico ought to be represented in the Senate by a Hispanic lawmaker again more than 40 years after Joseph Montoya last held office.
In her first interview with The New Mexican since first suggesting she would run for Senate, Toulouse Oliver sought Wednesday to contrast herself with the congressman from Nambé by suggesting she would bring a different voice to the race — that of a single mother still paying off student loans and a candidate who has pledged to reject funding from industries such as pharmaceuticals.
“It’s hard when someone has served in Washington — and especially in the strong leadership position that [Luján] is in — to take the kind of strong stances we really need in Congress nowadays,” Toulouse Oliver said.
The secretary of state said she would campaign on “unabashed support” of the Green New Deal, a slate of Democratic environmental and economic policies, as well as the creation of a national health insurance plan, colloquially known as “Medicare for all.” Toulouse Oliver also said she would support what she described as policy on the border that “treats people like humans.”
None of that is too far off from what Luján has publicly supported.
Asked how she stands apart from Luján, Toulouse Oliver pointed to a different kind of experience.
“I’ve been raising kids and trying to get the best education for them within our school system, and contending with student loan debt and these issues that everyday New Mexicans deal with,” she said.
Three out of four senators are men, and there are no single mothers of minor children currently serving in the chamber.
“At this time in our country’s history, having women’s voices at the table … will be able to not only benefit our nation but our state,” Toulouse Oliver said.
She will continue to serve as secretary of state during the campaign; the position doesn’t come up for election again until 2022.
She first took public office in 2006 when the Bernalillo County Commission appointed her to serve as clerk. In 2014, Toulouse Oliver stepped into a statewide race, running unsuccessfully for secretary of state and losing to Republican Dianna Duran. But Duran resigned just a few months after the election amid fraud and embezzlement charges. Toulouse Oliver ran in 2016 to finish out the remaining two years of Duran’s term. She won again last year, facing a couple of newcomers to state politics in the general election.
In a twist, she might face one of them — Republican Gavin Clarkson — again if he wins the GOP’s nomination for U.S. Senate. He is the only Republican in the race so far.
Toulouse Oliver also said her campaign will not take money from oil companies, executives or affiliated political action committees. She ruled out taking money from the pharmaceutical industry, too, or from the National Rifle Association or tobacco companies. Luján has said he will not take money from the NRA, either, or from private prison companies or major oil companies.
Having spent her political career in posts that are relatively administrative, not legislative, Toulouse Oliver has little record on hot-button issues such as health care or gun control. In turn, she is free to define herself for voters. But she already has riled plenty of Republicans with her push to regulate political spending by nonprofit groups and her refusal to certify a proposed petition for a referendum on a new gun control law.
While a few other Democrats initially were mentioned as prospective candidates, Luján has been the only other contender to jump into the race, launching his campaign at the beginning of the month.
Son of a former speaker of the state House, Luján, a past member of the Public Regulation Commission, was first elected in 2008 and has risen quickly through Democratic leadership, becoming assistant speaker this year.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, another potential candidate, endorsed Luján. So, too, did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But even as the endorsements have flowed in, Luján has been left shadowboxing. He has played up his support for priorities of the party’s left wing, endorsing the Green New Deal.
And Luján’s campaign has sought to get out in front of Toulouse Oliver’s appeal to women.
The day before Toulouse Oliver’s announcement, his campaign circulated the names of nearly 300 women it said have endorsed him. The list includes state Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, and former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
In an interview Tuesday, Luján pointed to his work as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during an election that swept more women into the House.
“I was honored to chair the DCCC during the time we elected more women to Congress than have ever served,” Luján said.
Personal experience and identity might indeed turn out to be a big part of the race, as both tack to the left and point to the potentially historic nature of their candidacies to set themselves apart.
“Both those major candidates would appeal to more of the progressive Democrats who are more likely to vote in the primary, and that will push one’s biography, one’s story into the forefront,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
And both can appeal to some broad bases, with Luján having deep roots in Northern New Mexico politics while Toulouse Oliver has run statewide several times before and held public office in Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous. Neither is likely a household name in Southern New Mexico, though, Sanderoff added. And turnout in the June 2020 primary could be particularly high if the Democratic Party has not yet winnowed down its crowded field of presidential candidates to a clear nominee.
Whoever wins the party’s nomination, he or she is expected to have a political advantage. Observers such as the newsletter Inside Elections view the state as solidly Democratic. And the race will unfold against the backdrop of an election in which President Donald Trump, who lost New Mexico in 2016, will seek another term.
Still, a Republican could have a better shot of winning an open seat instead of running against an established incumbent, like Udall.